A few millimetres of crossbar were the difference between Japan progressing to their first quarter-final and going home, but their coach Takeshi Okada took defeat in Pretoria yesterday hard. "If we are valid football players can be defined by the result and what we've done has not really been sufficient," Okada declared, adding rather ominously that "Japan were not able to win: the technical committee will address that."
This was certainly a long way from Fabio Capello's valedictory tournament address 24 hours earlier and Okada, unlike the England manager, rather ambiguously suggested that he will now call it a day. "I don't think I have anything left to do now probably," he said after a penalty shoot-out defeat which Japanese journalists were declaring was the first they had known.
Paraguay have never made the quarter-finals either and their manager Gerardo Martino had to be prised away from one of his coaches, in whose arms he was bawling his eyes out at the end. But it was hard not to sympathise with the Japanese players last night as they knelt on the halfway line to watch Oscar Cardozo dispatch the decisive penalty and kill off the hopes of a nation whose football has advanced so rapidly.
Pity Yuichi Komano, the unfortunate soul who missed. It was another blow in a career blighted by severe knee ligament trouble, thrombosis and an eye disease which briefly threatened to blind him.
Japan's entertaining preparations for the first penalty shoot-out of this World Cup included a group hug involving everyone, kit man and Okada included – "At that moment I told them why don't we score from the penalty kicks to win?" Okada revealed – and some players then donning long black coats, which made it look as if they were about to try a different kind of shoot-out with the Paraguayans. Considering the Japanese understanding of the properties of the Jabulani had made them the most dangerous team with a dead ball in the tournament, you would have backed them to finish it off at that stage.
It was actually their generally excellent goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima who proved less primed than he might have been and was nowhere near several poor kicks from the Paraguayans, though Japan were punished for a generally umambitious display in which they offered far less of the positive, energetic counter-attacking style which has made this tournament such an advertisement for them. Okada moved Yasuhito Endo up alongside the outstanding talent, Keisuke Honda, in the first half but with both sides so anxious to make it through, they froze. Those at home who popped out to put the kettle on for 120 minutes and re-emerged for the shoot-out can congratulate themselves today.
Okada laid the fault for this at his own door. "I did not insist enough," he said. "When I look back at what I could have done for the players and what I did for them I think I should have been more insistent, insisting on winning."
Briefly, Japan did offer a reprise of their thrilling group win over Denmark, which was secured with two fine free-kicks. It took Yoshito Okubo precisely 15 seconds to fire in from 30 yards and then full-back Yuicho Komano tried something similar two minutes later, watching the ball almost slither under Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar. Daisuke Matsui's effort also rattled against the crossbar.
In a half-empty stadium, the rest of the football was fairly desolate, with Lucas Barrios and Cristian Rivieros forcing sharp saves from Kawashima, and the shoot-out seemed inevitable from a long way out. One of the blizzard of statistics which this World Cup has generated includes the nugget about the eighth penalty of a shoot-out being the most likely to be missed, with just a 56 per cent success rate.
So it proved, sending through a Paraguay side who look too short of goals to be capable of progressing beyond the quarter-finals. But for now, their hearts are soaring. "Yes," said Martino when he had wiped his eyes and sat down to talk. "We are not trying to rewrite a page in the book of history but we are among the eight best nations in the world and we're celebrating that."
Paraguay (4-3-2-1) Villar, Bonet, Da Silva, Alcaraz, Morel; Vera, Ortigoza (Barreto, 77) Riveros; Santa Cruz (Cardozo, 94) Benitez (Valdez, 60); Barrios.
Japan (4-1-4-1) Kawashima; Nagatomo, MT Tanaka, Nakazawa, Komano; Abe (Nakamura, 81); Okubo (Tamada, 106) Endo, Matsui (Okazaki, 66) Hasebe; Honda.
Referee F De Bleeckere (Belgium)
Man of the match Honda.