A tsunami of pride rolled over Japan last night, swamping the nation from Hokkaido to Okinawa, as their footballers achieved their first victory in any World Cup finals. In front of Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister, Junichi Inamoto, the forgotten man of Highbury, scored the critical goal, prompting scenes of delirium.
Inamoto's 51st-minute strike means a point against Tunisia in Osaka on Friday will earn Japan a place in the second round. Victory and they are likely to avoid Brazil, opening up the possibility of a quarter-final place, possibly against England.
"I'm very proud," said Philippe Troussier, Japan's French coach. "This is a very important day for the entire Japanese nation. It will give confidence to everyone in this special country."
Inamoto's goal was his second of the tournament and it capped another all-round display that will have many Arsenal fans wondering why he did not make a single Premiership appearance last season. In his defence Arsène Wenger, who was at the match, can point to the championship and FA Cup trophies. Even so, Inamoto does look a better player than Gilles Grimandi.
His partnership with Parma's Hidetoshi Nakata is the heart of the side and with Shinji Ono, of Feyenoord, and the impressive J-League player Kazuyuki Toda, Japan's strength is clearly in midfield. Yet their key performer last night was their captain and central defender Tsuneyasu Miyamoto. Playing in a mask to protect a broken nose, he overcame a nervous start during which he was booked for bringing down Ruslan Pimenov. From then on he was immense, inevitably appearing just as a forward shaped to shoot. Even in the first minute of second-half injury time it was his tackle, on Andrei Solomatin, that prevented another anti-climatic finish on the co-hosts.
With South Korea, their host partners and bitter rivals, having achieved their first World Cup win last week there was a lot of national pride at stake for Japan. This was exacerbated by the identity of the opposition. Though the match lacked the historical footballing enmity of Anglo-Argentinian clashes, there was a similar geo-political edge, with both sides laying claim to a set of isolated, but strategically significant islands. Since 1945 Russia has occupied the Kuriles, just off northern Japan. Tokyo, which refers to them as the Northern Territories, has never recognised Russian sovereignty.
Japan's footballers, aware of the hope invested in them, began cautiously but soon realised Russia were unadventurous and, with the exception of the elegant Igor Titov, cumbersome by comparison. Inamoto had twice gone close when, after 28 minutes, Takayuki Suzuki sprinted down the left flank. His cross fell to Hidetoshi Nakata but, from the edge of the box, he blazed over.
Russia, playing Pimenov alone in attack, struggled to respond. Marat Izmailov curled a 20-yard shot just wide, but only Titov's through ball tested Seigo Narazaki requiring him to dive at Pimenov's feet. Japan re-emerged from the break with a confidence which was swiftly justified as Koji Nakata drove the ball into the box and Suzuki diverted it to Inamoto. As against Belgium, he finished with great composure.
Seven minutes later Vladimir Beschastnykh, running on to Dimitri Khokhlov's flick, rounded Narazaki but hit the side netting. It was to prove Russia's best chance. To the accompaniment of "Nippon, Nippon" Japan ought to have won comfortably but, with Atushi Yanagisawa and Suzuki wasting chances, and Hidetoshi Nakata hitting the bar from 20 yards, their supporters could never rest easy. Nor, given the subsequent celebrations, did anyone else last night.
Japan 1 Russia 0
JAPAN (3-4-1-2): Narazaki (Grampus Eight); Matsuda (Yokohama), Miyamoto (Osaka), K Nakata (Kashima Antlers); Myojin (Kashiwa Reysol), Toda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Inamoto (Arsenal), Ono (Feyenoord); H Nakata (Parma); Yanagisawa (Kashima Antlers), Suzuki (Kashima Antlers). Substitutes: Nakayama (Iwata) for Suzuki, 71; Hattori (Iwata) for Ono, 74; Fukunishi (Iwata) for Inamoto, 84.
RUSSIA (4-1-4-1): Nigmatullin (Verona); Solomatin (CSKA Moscow), Nikiforov (PSV Eindhoven), Onopko (Oviedo), Kovtun (Spartak Moscow); Smertin (Bordeaux); Karpin (Celta Vigo), Titov (Spartak Moscow), Izmailov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Semshov (Torpedo Moscow); Pimenov (Lokomotiv Moscow). Substitutes: Sychev (Spartak Moscow) for Pimenov, h-t; Khokhlov (Real Sociedad) for Izmailov, 51; Beschastnykh (Spartak Moscow) for Smertin, 56.
Referee: M Merk (Germany).
Bookings: Japan: Miyamoto, K Nakata. Russia: Pimenov, Solomatin.
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