Japanese fans look beyond tactics to celebrate victory

In this Thursday, June 28, 2018, file photo,  Japanese soccer fans celebrate at a public viewing venue in Tokyo as Japan advanced to the next stage of the World Cup following their team's loss to Poland in the Group H World Cup soccer match. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama, File)

TOKYO (AP) Japanese soccer fans on Friday debated their team’s controversial tactics at the World Cup, with most accepting them as an inevitable outcome of the tournament’s tiebreaking format.

Japan lost 1-0 to Poland in their final group game on Thursday in Russia. Despite the loss, Japan advanced to a round-of-16 match against Belgium because it received fewer yellow cards than Senegal, which lost to Colombia by the same score at the same time.

Once Colombia had scored in Samara, Japan knew it had done enough to advance even though it was losing late in its match. The Japanese players slowed play down to almost nothing, softly passing the ball back and forth in little triangles in their own end to waste time.

”My decision was to rely on the other match,” Japan coach Akira Nishino said. ”I’m not too happy about this but … I forced my players to do what I said. And we went through.”

Poland, happy to get a victory after two losses, did little to pressure Japan’s players.

Panels of former players and soccer commentators debated the unusual tactics throughout the day on Japanese TV, with most expressing support for Nishino.

”It was a difficult decision by Nishino but the correct one,” said soccer commentator and former player Tetsuo Nakanishi.

Both Japan and Senegal finished the group phase with four points, had the same goal difference and the same amount of goals scored. They also played to a 2-2 draw on Sunday.

Starting at this year’s tournament, disciplinary records – known as fair play – were added by FIFA as a tiebreaker. Japan had four yellow cards in its three group matches while Senegal had six.

As they have done for previous matches, large groups of Japanese fans assembled at various venues around the country.

Once it was confirmed their team would advance, wild celebrations lasted into the early hours of Friday morning.

”It wasn’t pretty near the end, but the team did what it had to do,” said company employee Makoto Uchida. ”I’m happy we are going to the next round.”