Japan's magic fades with disappointing loss to Costa Rica

When did the clock strike midnight on Cinderella darling Japan in its 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Sunday?

It could have been when Hajime Moriyasu decided to rotate half of the starting lineup that stunned world No. 11 Germany just four days earlier — a result that was arguably the Samurai Blue’s best ever at a FIFA World Cup — in service of a conservative gameplan that hardly fit the occasion.

Maybe it was when Japan’s attacking foursome spent much of the first half sleepwalking and failed to create much of anything in the way of scoring opportunities against a Central American side that gave up seven goals to presumptive group favorite Spain in its opener.

Or perhaps it was after a series of baffling defensive misplays — from the midfield to the goal line — that allowed the Costa Ricans to score in the 81st minute with their first shot on target — not of the half, or of the game, but of the entire tournament.

Much like the act of watching these 90 minutes — whether as a fan at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium in Doha or in bars and living rooms across Japan — to pinpoint the exact moment when Japan’s dashing carriage turned back into a pumpkin is an exercise in futility.

The magic is gone, and only uncertain darkness awaits.

Sunday’s 1-0 defeat leaves the Samurai Blue with three points and zero goal difference after two games, meaning they will have to accomplish what many universally agreed was the most intimidating of conditions: A win — or at least a fortunate series of results — in Thursday night’s Group E finale against Spain, which drew 1-1 with Germany late Sunday night and will also be trying to secure its own place in the knockouts rather than rotating its key players ahead of the round of 16.

What’s most distressing isn’t that Japan is in this position heading into its final game — after all, a narrow loss to Germany and a win over Costa Rica would also have left the team with an identical three points and a need-to-win game against the 2010 champion.

But as everyone’s favorite fictional head coach Ted Lasso once said, it’s the hope that kills you. And hope is what Japanese supporters — festooned in their blue uniforms, hachimaki headbands, homemade samurai armor and kimono — had in spades following the “Miracle of Doha,” making Sunday’s result all the much more heartbreaking.

Morning newspaper headlines dubbed the defeat a “grave miscalculation,” with Sponichi writing that Japan “threw the first half down the drain” and Hochi declaring it a “Moriyasu misfire.”

The majority of the blame surely deserves to be placed squarely on the shoulders of Moriyasu, who took his accumulated goodwill from the result against Die Mannschaft — which drew praise even from critics who have dogged him since his 2018 appointment — and squandered it on a lineup that offered nary a hint of a threat throughout the first 45 minutes.

“Japan didn’t need to rotate its lineup that much,” former national team forward Jo Shoji said on his YouTube channel. “With Costa Rica defending that hard, Japan needed to bring on the members from the Germany game and try to score in the first half, otherwise this is what happens.”