How Japan Upset Spain and Knocked Out Germany in the Process

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The 11 Japanese players on the field were fighting back every Spanish threat and counting every tick of the clock. The substitutes stood on the sideline, arms locked, ready to rush the field. The fans beat a drum, and it felt like a quickening heartbeat.

The whistle blew, and Japan had done it: It had upset another European soccer heavyweight, turned its four-team group inside out, and advanced to the round of 16.

And Spain, knowing the tiebreaker scenarios and tracking what was happening 30 miles away in a game between Germany and Costa Rica, breathed a collective sigh of relief. It, too, had advanced from Group E, even after a 2-1 defeat at Khalifa International Stadium.

Germany won its match but lost its hope. The Germans, the 2014 World Cup champions, were stunningly eliminated from the tournament before the round of 16 for the second time in a row. This time, Germany was undone by its own middling play over three games and the ruthless cruelty of group-stage math.

At halftime of Thursday’s Group E games, which were played simultaneously, it looked as if Germany and Spain were going to move on. Minutes later, it looked as if it would be Japan and Costa Rica, after each scored two quick goals to take second-half leads.

None of it was certain, though, until the games ended about 40 minutes later, and almost at the same time.

The dizzying in-game what-ifs reinforced a quadrennial truism: The simultaneous group-stage finales provide what might be the greatest drama of the tournament.

It is everything that is weird, wild and fun — or heartbreaking — about the World Cup.

The end of the story was that Japan was in and Germany was out. But getting there over the course of two hours was where all the intrigue was found.

The pregame advancing scenarios can read like a word problem: if this, then that, unless a team also needs this and this and that to happen, or just that and this — then let’s talk about yellow cards. Deciphering the possibilities on some nights requires a lot of free time or an advanced degree in Tournament Engineering.

Spain merely needed a win or a draw to guarantee its spot in the round of 16. Even a loss, with a Germany win over Costa Rica, would have done the job.

It opened by hypnotizing both Japan and the crowd with its ball control. Openings were few, as Japan sat back, but the game’s first goal came at the 12-minute mark when the Spanish striker Álvaro Morata slipped between slow-reacting defenders to head a cross past goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.

In Al Khor, Germany, too, had scored quickly to take a 1-0 lead. Just like that, the soccer world was back on axis, Germany and Spain ready to march into the knockout rounds. Without comebacks, both Japan and Costa Rica would be eliminated.

Japan’s coach, Hajime Moriyasu, made halftime adjustments and substituted in Kaoru Mitoma and Ritsu Doan, two jolts of energy who changed the game with their speed and pressure. Suddenly, Spain was the team on its heels, and minutes into the second half Doan sent a heavy left-footer past Unai Simón to tie the score.

A flash later, in the 51st minute and with Japan swarming, a ball slid through Spain’s goal mouth to the end line to Simón’s right. To his team’s relief, it appeared to roll out of play. But a sliding Mitoma saved it anyway, flicking it back past Simón in the general direction of Ao Tanaka, who knocked it into the goal.

Spain thought the ball had gone out of play, and initial replays seemed to agree. But, urged to reconsider by the video-assistant referee monitoring the action, the on-field referee took a second look and let the score stand.

Suddenly Japan led, 2-1. And to the north, a few minutes later, Costa Rica scored to tie Germany, then scored again to take the lead.

The group standings were now in a mixer.

None of this should have been a surprise: This is how these nights go.

Hours earlier, three teams — Morocco, Belgium and Croatia — had fought for Group F’s two spots as Canada tried to play spoiler. (Croatia and Morocco advanced.) Those outcomes came one night after another chaotic ending in Argentina’s group, when second-place Poland watched on the field as Mexico defeated Saudi Arabia but lost out on a place in the knockout stage anyway.

It will all make more sense in the round of 16 and beyond, when every match sends one team forward and the other home. When the United States plays the Netherlands on Saturday, the team with the most goals wins. (But there might be penalty kicks, a different topic of controversy and confusion.)

But to get there, Japan, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica first had to settle Group E.

Costa Rica’s lead was short-lived; Germany soon scored to retie the game, then scored again to take a lead that it did not give up. But even victory would not be enough for the Germans if Spain lost.

Spain, now desperate and fearing a Costa Rican goal that might have scrambled everything anew, sent wave after wave against a smothering Japanese defense. Japan beat back the threats one by one. In the 90th minute, Spanish fans lifted in anticipation as a promising close-range shot was smothered by Gonda.

By then, Germany had scored again, even as it knew its fate rested on Spain’s ability to put a goal past Japan. It did not.

Just as it had beaten Germany to start the tournament, Japan had beaten Spain — sandwiched around a now-perplexing loss to Costa Rica. The victories mirrored one another: a 1-0 deficit, a well-timed substitution, a Roan goal off the bench, a desperate bit of hanging on.

Japan fought back the last Spanish attack, cleared the ball and heard the referee’s whistle. The substitutes unlocked their arms and ran to their teammates on the field.

Japan won Group E and Spain took the second spot, thanks to having a plus-6 goal differential. Germany’s goal differential was 1 — not good enough.

It was simple math. The fun part was solving the equation.