TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese soccer fans fought back tears and wondered what could have been after a last-gasp goal by Belgium crushed their dreams of a historic World Cup quarter-final berth in heartbreaking fashion.
The Samurai Blue looked on track to reach their first quarter-final in three last-16 attempts after going 2-0 ahead early in the second half, only to see Belgium roar back and snatch a 3-2 win with an explosive counter-attack deep into stoppage time.
“When we took the lead I thought we were going to win,” said 21-year-old university student Nao Okada, who burst into tears at a Tokyo sports bar as the final whistle sounded.
“It hurts but it was a really good game and I feel moved. I want Japan to keep playing hard next time,” she said.
The 61st-ranked Japanese were given little chance of making an impact at the tournament, but their gritty group stage display and last-16 match versus Belgium won over the fans.
“This was a really good team, their passing and scoring and teamwork,” said 39-year-old hairdresser Kenichi Okegami.
“At 2-2 I thought we were heading for a penalty shootout... it’s crushing,” he said.
Belgium became the first side to win a World Cup knockout game from two goals down since 1970, making the loss all the more gut-wrenching for Japan and their supporters.
“Just a little bit more... it was a harsh result,” said Kenta Saito, 61, a former school soccer coach and a qualified referee.
“They had chances at the end but they couldn’t grab them,” he said.
Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya pedestrian scramble, normally the site of post-game revelry, was markedly more subdued as fans staggered out of sports bars into the harsh early daylight after the game wrapped up at about 5 a.m. local time.
Still, supporters tried to take away positives from the result, taking pride in a better performance than the 1-0 loss to Poland that saw Japan advance from the group stage on the strength of a better disciplinary record.
Japan drew criticism for their tactics in the Poland match after playing the final several minutes passing around the ball to run down the clock, knowing they would advance despite a loss.
“Today’s was a good game so it made up for all that passing last time,” said Okada, the university student.
(This version of the story corrects spelling of name in third and final paragraphs)
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Writing by Chris Gallagher