From feisty play to gladiators consoling each other and even fans cleaning up the stadium afterwards - wouldn’t it be great if all games were like this one?
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A few hours after Neymar and Brazil spent a considerable amount of time rolling around on the turf while pretending to suffer the most agonising injuries against Mexico, Belgium and Japan helped everyone forget the awfulness that far too often underscores crunch encounters.
Japan, who had sneaked their way into the last 16 on the “fair play” criteria, gave much-fancied Belgium nothing in the first 45 minutes. They boxed them in, threatened to break and held their own against a side many reckon will go all the way.
A few minutes into the second half, their efforts paid off. Japan struck twice in a flash to take a convincing lead. It looked like the 2018 World Cup script was drawing up yet another unlikely fairytale.
But a combination of Japan’s inexperience, fatigue and a bit of luck for Belgium spelled the end of the Asian dream in Russia.
For the first time in the game, the Japanese collapsed to the turf en masse in genuine agony. It wasn’t some theatrical ankle clutching – this really hurt body, mind and soul. In the stands, fans cried their hearts out. It was a tough loss, unfair even.
Yet the pain was soothed somewhat by the balm of the spirit of sport.
For the full 94 minutes, neither side felt the need to let cynicism rule, even if those tactics are often well within the laws of the game. Tackled? Get up, play on and maybe even try to engineer a counter attack.
It makes for mesmerising football, speeds up the game and delivers the kind of enthralling spectacle everyone hopes to see.
Knockout games are brutal. Teams do what it takes; shut up shop, add a bit of extra wriggle when they hit the deck, play the man and not the ball. It’s not heinous, but it often feels terribly wrong to watch.
Instead, Belgium and Japan showed just how enthralling an open approach can be – and how it can even pay off with results.
But it wasn’t just the style of play that made this last 16 clash one for the ages. Belgium’s players took time to console their opposite numbers, even as they were swept by the emotion of their own achievement.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) July 2, 2018
In the stands Japanese fans, as they did against Colombia and as they did alongside the Senegal supporters, picked up the after-party litter.
Japan's fans clearing rubbish despite watching Belgium end their World Cup dreams in heartbreaking fashion. pic.twitter.com/jK2uOOwME4
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) July 2, 2018
The players eventually peeled themselves from the grass and walked over to the crowd, bowing in appreciation for their support, all while still unable to comprehend their heartbreak at the last.
Coach Akira Nishino was almost without words when asked for the best advice he could offer his charges?
“Take a shower.”
“They were standing, just not doing anything. So I am going to talk to them after we get back to the hotel,” he said afterward.
Amazing from Japan.
This is how they left the changing room after losing v Belgium: cleaned it all.
And in the middle, have left a message to Russia: “Spasibo” (Thank you) pic.twitter.com/lrwoIZt2pR
— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) July 3, 2018
They showered, cleaned the changing room and left behind just one piece of paper with the word “spasibo” (Russian for “thank you”) written on it.
Football fans and players are often – rightly and wrongly – derided as a bad bunch. Fans for their boisterous and occasionally violent behaviour, players for their theatrics, arrogance and outright cheating.
Every so often, though, two teams deliver the antidote at the perfect time. The quarter-finals won’t be so serene as the tension mounts, but perhaps a few of the more bombastic actors might take note. DM
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