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Blue Samurai draft new chapter for Japan

Tired but elated Japanese fans savoured history in the making Friday as the Blue Samurai stormed to the final 16 of the World Cup for the first time on foreign soil, defying pre-tournament expectations. Streets in Shibuya, the buzzing centre of Japanese youth culture in Tokyo, were flooded by sleepless and euphoric fans following Japan’s 3-1 victory over Denmark in the Group E match, which kicked off at 3:30 am (1830 GMT Thursday).

Football fans congregated at cafes, bars and stadiums across the nation for the late-night viewings and were rewarded with a bold and assertive performance that turned many fans’ pre-tournament pessimism on its head.

“I am so happy because I didn’t expect them to win,” said Yoko Tamada, 26, a flight attendant who was one of about 300 fans watching at the “nakata.net cafe” in the hip Omotesando district near Shibuya.

“Hopefully, we can go to the last four, at least,” she said with an eye on the semi-final spot. “Or, we can win the tournament.”

Two superb first-half strikes by midfielders Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo put Japan on a solid footing before substitute striker Shinji Okazaki made it 3-1 minutes before the final whistle to pulverize any lingering Danish hopes.

Around 5,000 fans who gathered at Saitama Stadium outside Tokyo roared in delight as they saw their side score freely and defend bravely against an imposing Danish team, despite Japan only needing to draw.

Loud chants of “Nippon (Japan)! Nippon!” rang into the dawn skies, as they did in the streets of Shibuya, and no doubt echoed by fellow fans in all corners of Japan.

“This is an historic day,” said student Fumiya Inaba, 24. “I have high hopes for Honda” to shine in the next game.

“I want them to draft a new chapter in Japanese history,” Miki Yoshioka, 21, said.

Honda’s former high school coach Mamoru Kawasaki joined in the praise for Japan’s bleach-blond goal ace.

“He played with a cool head. He kept his mental focus,” Kawasaki said after watching the game with his current team — who all wore their kit during the match — at Seiryo High School in central Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture. Many who could not stay up to watch the game woke up to the surprise news.

“They won? It can’t be true!” said a woman in Tokyo’s Ginza district who gave her name as Ishigami, her eyes tearing up when an AFP reporter informed her of the result.

“I’m so surprised, although I didn’t think they were hopeless,” said the woman in her 60s. “I hope they can keep up momentum and win more and more.”

Japan is usually more accustomed to venting frustration at a team that in recent years has lacked firepower and offered tame showings on the international stage, drawing particular fire in the build-up to the World Cup. But former Japan coach Philippe Troussier, who oversaw the nation’s first foray into the second round of the tournament on home soil in 2002, saluted the team’s recent evolution.

“It was solid and clever defense. No major mistakes and very stable,” he said in a morning television show.

Japan face Paraguay in the round of 16 on Tuesday as they appear in the knockout phase for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, which the country co-hosted with South Korea.

 

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