A group stage match between Japan and Germany is the kind of World Cup game that just begs to be put on the schedule. Who wouldn’t be excited to see one of the best teams in the world against young, scrappy underdogs who can make things interesting? The problem with getting excited about these kinds of games, however, is that they rarely live up to the billing, either because the underdog slips away and gets blown out 4–0, or because the favorites never get into gear and bounce back to a 0-0 draw or a 1-0 loss. Fortunately, Japan and Germany played their roles to perfection on Wednesday, producing the best game of the tournament so far.
We start with Germany, who started the game seemingly determined to silence any lingering doubts about their place in the world soccer hierarchy. The Japanese sat deep and hoped to absorb German attacks and occasionally burst out to try and steal a goal. This is a healthy strategy against better opposition, as even the most talented squads can struggle to unlock a deep defense. The problem for Japan was that Germany started the game with full energy, connecting passes with ease and creating attacking patterns that led to a steady stream of scoring chances. It was a beautiful switch from midfielder Joshua Kimmich that found left-back David Raum alone in Japan’s box in the 32nd minute, leading to a penalty and a 1-0 lead for Germany.
At this point it felt like a big win was on the cards for Germany. Not only did they have all the possession, they were also cutting through Japan’s lines and creating shots at a rate (Germany took 29 shots in this game!) that seemed to ensure two or three more goals were on the way.
This is where Japan stepped in and did its part. In a matchup like this, the smaller team’s chances usually depend on how much they can frustrate their bigger, badder opponents. You sit behind the ball and give up all possession in the hope that the others can’t figure out how to create chances, get more frustrated with their inability to create those chances as the game goes on, and eventually a clear lack of determination that can be exploited. None of this happened for Germany, so it would have been perfectly understandable for Japan to crumble. Fine. The plan didn’t work out. These guys are just better.
The funny thing happened as the game progressed though: The confidence and courage of the Japanese continued to grow. Managers love to talk about how important mentality is to success on a football pitch, and you won’t find better evidence to support that view than the performance Japan produced in the final 30 minutes of this game. Germany never really slowed down or hesitated, but Japan didn’t have to. They just kept fighting and pushing and creating chances and finally got the equalizer in the 75th minute:
And they didn’t stop there. The playbook would have called for Japan to fall back into defensive shape and focus on defending the draw, but Samurai Blue had more fight left in them:
This is what the World Cup is all about: two teams pushing their way into promoted states in an effort to meet the demands they placed on each other. When Japan sat back and chose to try and absorb all of Germany’s pressure, it was begging for proof that Germany could live up to its capabilities. When Germany submitted an accepted answer, it in turn asked Japan if it had the horses to make a real game out of it. The end result was a joy for Japan and a huge disappointment for the Germans, but it was the effort and determination shown by both sides that made this game more than just an upset. A well-played game can sometimes transcend its end result.