AL WAKRAH, Qatar – Lips pursed, Hajime Moriyasu stared blankly at the Ultra Nippon in the stands.
The Japan coach then raised his right palm to his chest, and delivered his own show of appreciation – a long bow.
His team’s World Cup journey in Qatar – one that had made them a neutral’s favourite for their courage, determination and fight – had just ended.
Moriyasu’s men had put in unyielding displays in come-from-behind wins over former champions Spain and Germany in the group stage.
But, in the round of 16 on Monday, they were bested on penalties by a Croatia side who had more experience in going the extra mile.
Four years ago in Russia, the Croats won all their three knockout games – two on penalties and one after extra time – as they went on a dream run to the final, where they lost 4-2 to France in regulation time.
In Qatar, they dragged Japan into deep waters, and snuffed their hopes of reaching the last eight for the first time on spot-kicks.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the hero as he saved kicks from Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and Maya Yoshida after both teams were locked at 1-1 following 120 minutes of play.
Mario Pasalic scored the final kick for Croatia.
It was a disappointing end for the Japanese, whose exit matches their best World Cup showing, which they had achieved thrice before (in 2002, 2010 and 2018).
Moriyasu, who was the last member of the Japan team to leave the pitch at the Al Janoub Stadium, chose to look at the positives.
“The players showed us the future, a new era of Japanese football,” he said. “We beat Germany, we beat Spain...
“If we take confidence in that, and if we think about overtaking these teams rather than just catching up, the future is bright.”
With both sides having played exhausting matches last Thursday to secure their place in the round of 16, there was a feeling both did not want to over-exert themselves too early and this resulted in a cagey first half. But they still produced good chances.
Japan striker Daizen Maeda, and then defender Yuto Nagatomo, narrowly missed getting onto the end of a dangerous low cross by Junya Ito, before Croatia striker Andrej Kramaric also came close to connecting at the back post to Ivan Perisic’s flick-on header.
In the 41st minute, a chance fell to Daichi Kamada inside the six-yard box but the Japan midfielder shanked his shot woefully wide.
Still, it stirred the Japanese fans, who sensed they were getting closer to finding their mark. Just two minutes later, they did.
The shaven-headed Maeda was at the right place at the right time to slam the ball home, after Ritsu Doan’s cross was flicked into his path by Yoshida.
It was the first time the Japanese had scored first in this World Cup, and they did not take long to lose it.
Just 10 minutes after the restart, Perisic timed his run into the box perfectly and planted a low, powerful header beyond Shuichi Gonda’s reach.
The introduction of fresh legs from both teams – there were six substitutions before the 90-minute mark – could not help either side find a winner in regulation time.
In the extra 30 minutes of play, substitute Mitoma came closest to a winning goal, racing half the length of the pitch and firing a powerful long-range shot that was beaten away by Livakovic.
It was a sign of things to come, as the 27-year-old shot-stopper stole the show in the shoot-out minutes later.
The Ultra Nippon had roared loudly when the coin toss decided that kicks would be taken at the goal on their end of the pitch.
Alas, it did not prove a boon to their team, whose first kicker Minamino, and then Mitoma, saw their kicks stopped by Livakovic.
Marko Livaja struck the post on the Croats’ third kick, raising Japanese hopes.
But then Samurai Blue skipper Yoshida was also thwarted by Livakovic, before Pasalic ensured his side’s passage into the quarter-final, where they will play Brazil on Friday.
Midfielder Nikola Vlasic, who converted Croatia’s first spot-kick, said: “They gave us a hard game, but we knew that would be the case, it’s not coincidence that they beat Germany and Spain.
“We had more chances and I think we deserved to win.”
Moriyasu was left wondering what might have been.
When he was appointed four years ago, the Japan Football Association had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement where he reflected on his own international career as a player, and wrote that Qatar was “that place of destiny” for the team, whom he promised to improve so they could “beat the world”.
In a way, through their inspirational, history-making wins over the giants of the game, perhaps they did.