TOKYO, June 29 (Reuters) - Soccer fans in Japan burst into celebration after their team advanced to the World Cup knockout round despite a 1-0 loss to Poland, exchanging high-fives and hugs in relief that they had squeezed through.
In Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya, elated supporters streamed out of sports bars after the final whistle at around 1 a.m. local time, the sound of horns and “Nippon” chants filling the streets as they converged upon the district’s iconic pedestrian scramble.
“I’m so relieved. I knew it was going to be a tough game,” said 20-year-old student Kousuke Takahashi, adding that the loss didn’t take any shine off their overall World Cup performance.
“I never thought we’d make it out of the group stage so I’m happy with the result.”
Before the tournament Japan had been given little chance of surviving the group stage but a shock win over Colombia and a draw with Senegal put them on track for their third trip to the World Cup’s last 16.
“Congratulations on advancing to the knockout stage!” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a tweet. “You can do it in the next one too, Japan!”
Still, the way Japan advanced left a bad taste in the mouth of some supporters, who felt the team had abandoned their Samurai Blue spirit of playing hard until the end no matter what.
With Colombia beating Senegal 1-0, Japan knew they would qualify second in their group on the strength of having fewer yellow cards than Senegal and so were content to play the final several minutes passing around the ball to run down the clock.
“I was so excited before the game. They needed a draw but I really wanted them to win. So I’m embarrassed by the way they were happy to just accept the loss,” said Makiko Totsuka, a 30-year-old musician who watched with her friends in a bar.
“Japan’s style of play in the second half was a little disappointing,” said 22-year-old student Takeaki Sudo, who watched the game at home with his family. “I thought they’d play their Japan style of soccer and get a win.”
Japan will face England or Belgium in the last 16. (Reporting by Chris Gallagher Editing by Ian Chadband)