AL Waqra, Qatar – Japan’s players huddled in the center circle, waiting for the bell to sound. Few teams have done more to give some form to the intro days of this World Cup than the Japanese. They beat Germany and Spain in the space of a week and a half, losing to Costa Rica in between. They made the supposedly formal group stage messy, clean and uncut.
When the end came, it brought with it that breath of uncertainty, that breath of irrepressible hope. A controlled, late encounter with Croatia ended in stalemate. Overtime came and went — almost literally — without incident. Even a penalty shootout, a concept designed for the purpose of providing an exciting crescendo, does not produce the heart-stopping twist, the ultimate thrill.
Instead, Takumi Minamino and Kaoru Mitoma almost apologetically missed Japan’s first two attempts, both comfortably saved by Dominik Livakovic, giving Croatia an advantage that would waste considerable effort.
What followed was somehow routine enough to feel officiating: Mario Basalic, the Croatia midfielder, walked from the halfway line to the penalty area. He took the ball. He put it down. He took two steps back. He fired a shot past Shuichi Konda. He finished Japan’s tournament. He did it all with a business-like air of a man, checking a box on some paperwork and making sure everything was in order before it was filed.
While the Croatian players celebrated in the corner, the Japanese team was reeling. A few had tears in their eyes. In a sense, they have achieved more than expected in this tournament. The draw for the group stage was, after all, unusually cruel. Few gave Japan a chance of escaping a pool containing two former World Cup winners, even if one of them was an increasingly hapless Germany.
Qatar made 2022 the country’s most successful men’s tournament before the Round of 16 began; Fullback Yuto Nagatomo has already declared the side “the strongest in Japanese history at the World Cup”. Japan have been in World Cup finals for 24 years and have never claimed a scalp as big as that of the Germans. It will be the biggest finish in its history for about 10 days until Spain.
For all the Japanese have achieved, the lingering feeling that accompanies coach Hajime Moriyasu and his players as they return from Qatar will be sadness. Japan has never reached the World Cup quarter-finals. And as ruthless as its group stage balance was, the knockout bracket worked in Japan’s favor. This is its chance. It may not get the best one.
Croatia, of course, is not Spain. It really doesn’t get much higher than Germany. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and others are four years away from a World Cup final, sure – the smallest country to do so in the modern era, by some distance – but its powers have waned considerably.
It’s tempting to oversize Modric to point out that time is starting to catch up with one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, but that’s not the problem. Yes, Modric is now 37 years old. Yes, his powers are beginning to show the first, telltale signs of waning. No, not four times in two weeks, he cannot complete the full 90 minutes.
But he remains, recognisably and undeniably, Luka Modric. He still has a vision of balance and elegance and reserves of energy that are surprising. Once Croatia realize they need less push and more control, he can still spend a good hour from his post in midfield forward, as he did at 27.
Perisic, still a grizzled old warrior, moves up and down the left wing and the same goes for Marcelo Brozovic, who patrols behind Modric. They all wear their age lightly. They may be a little faded, but they are rarely worn. The bright lights of a golden generation never cease to shine.
No, the problem is what’s around them. Four years ago, Modric could rely on Ivan Rakitic’s trickery and Mario Mandzukic’s gritty pragmatism to accompany him in midfield. Along with six other teams who faced France in the 2018 finals in Moscow, they are no longer in the field.
Their replacements – the likes of Bruno Petkovic and Ante Budimir – are not bad players, not at all. Croatia’s resources are largely drawn from Europe’s elite leagues, and in central defender Josco Guardiola, the country may even have found another generation-defining talent.
But the precise mix, which had brought such success for so long, had been diluted, changed in some inexplicable way. Timing hasn’t caught on with Modric — he’s said he wants to play until he’s 40, and it’s hard to make a convincing case against that idea — but he’s outlived most of his generation.
For a while, it looked like Japan would take advantage. It deserved its lead at the break with a goal from Tyson Maeda. Every time the Japanese struck at pace, every time they flickered with even the smallest of goals, Croatia seemed to snap back on its heels.
It was first stored by a muscle memory – a long, confident ball from an old-timer, Dejan Lovren, met with a thunderous header by another Perisic – and then an attribute that evaporates over time. : Pure, bloody mind.
Slowly, surely, Croatia squeezed all the fun out of Japan. Unlike Spain, unlike Germany, it was not prepared to tolerate any chaos. This is business, not pleasure. No time for drama, no room for twists. In fact, there’s nothing like checking a box and filing some paperwork.
December 5, 2022
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of international goals for Japanese forward Daisen Maeda. His goal against Croatia was his second, not his first.
An earlier version of this article misstated how many Asian teams advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. South Korea was the second team in 2002, not the first team. (North Korea did in 1966.)
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