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Japanese did themselves proud

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The match was an epic World Cup encounter, another sporting spectacle that will remain etched in memory until the darkness comes to call

World Cup - Japan Training

Tragedy is not only confined to a harrowing Shakespeare play, it is just as overt, in all its pain and suffering, in this passionate sport of football.

And so, on Monday night, after an absorbing, fluctuating 2018 World Cup last 16 tie, a gallant Japan were transformed into the quintessential tragic hero, winning the empathy and respect of the entire world. And they achieved this global recognition and regard not through politics or economics or science or philosophy, it was done by this simple yet unifying force called football.

In a performance of courage and commitment, speed and skill, toil and tenacity, and almost ninja-like stealth, the Japanese were desperately unfortunate as Belgium netted a last-gasp, soul-destroying winning goal.

The match was an epic World Cup encounter, another sporting spectacle that will remain etched in memory until the darkness comes to call.

In a rip-roaring game, which pounded our fragile emotions to a pulp, we were thrust, headlong, frantically, to those very last few seconds: from one end to the other, the intuitive, quick counter-launch from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (in classic Itumeleng Khune mode), the determined forward thrust of Kevin de Bruyne, the insightful cut-back from Thomas Meunier, the artful dodger-like dummy of Romelu Lukaku, and the sweet finish of Nacer Chadli that broke Japanese hearts – and the sound of the shattering emotions could be heard from Russia to Tokyo, from Reykjavik to Rajasthan, from Kazakhstan to Kenya to Khayelitsha.

A ceaseless topic of conversation always seems to centre around the future possibility of an African country winning the World Cup, especially because the great Pele once made such a prediction. But never have I heard anybody, anywhere, entertain the prospect of an Asian country as world football champions.

After Japan’s astounding run in Russia 2018, the question has to be asked: Why not?

With regard to technique, tactical awareness and discipline, organisation and mental strength, Asian football has made tremendous strides in recent times. In fact, can we be so bold as to suggest that an Asian country will win the World Cup before Africa does? Doesn’t sound right, does it? But

Everybody, by now, knows and appreciates the extraordinary tale of Belgium’s journey to football success. Today, with a glut of super-talented footballers, they are the envy of the football world.

But, while we knew that, the big question was always: do they have the character to complement the talent? Well, now we certainly have the answer: they have character and courage and persistence in spades.

Down 2-0 to Japan, and looking like the next big team to be upset at Russia 2018, Belgium staged a rousing recovery. They dug deep, kept plugging away, and produced some special moments to finally emerge as winners.

The bigger test, though, awaits: next up are five-time champions Brazil, on Friday in Kazan. I’m already feverishly anticipating this one.

Let me just say that I am a huge fan of Neymar. The gifted Brazilian is, without doubt, one of the best footballers on the planet. I even understand and appreciate his dashing, devil-may-care approach – because, like it or not, top-class players like Neymar, the two Ronaldos, Ronaldinho and others, always have more than a touch of arrogance to their game; call it a side-effect of greatness, of genius.

But, really, to be brutally honest, his theatrics has reached the point of ridicule. He is such a superb footballer, Brazil are such a fantastic team, surely there is no need for such gratuitous nonsense?