With one delicious first touch, one lightning turn of pace and one wondrous swipe of his right boot, Takuma Asano set off a power surge to electrify this World Cup. At a stroke, Japan’s bench emptied, the substitutes and support staff all charging down the touchline to engulf their bleach-blond striker as he vaulted the advertising hoardings, lost in the delirium of it all. Germany’s punch-drunk players could only look on bewildered, their reputation for ruthlessness emphatically debunked.
“Ludicrous” was how Thomas Müller, appearing at his fourth World Cup, described this defeat. It was as if Germany, once near-impregnable at this tournament and chasing their fifth title, never even comprehended that they could lose. They had better believe it now. Throughout a breakneck second half Japan were faster, sharper, brighter than their complacent opponents, with Ritsu Doan’s goal fortifying their self-belief and Asano applying the astounding coup de grace.
The scenes at the final whistle conveyed multitudes. Serge Gnabry lay face-down on the turf, while German fans wore thousand-yard stares. In the centre circle, Hajime Moriyasu, the Japanese manager who changed the course of this game with his inspired substitutions, gathered his troops together for one last blood-pumping speech. While the stage became Japan’s to conquer, the four-time champions confronted the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of a second straight group-stage exit.
In the space of just over 24 hours, the old order had been flipped for a second time. The parallels between Germany’s fate and Argentina’s humiliation at the hands of Saudi Arabia were uncanny. Both these World Cup giants took the lead with a penalty, both dominated their first halves, and both had early goals scrubbed out for offside. And while both led 1-0 at half-time, both were irreparably damaged by conceding two goals in rapid succession, with both ultimately losing 2-1. The two countries could be forgiven for wondering whether there was some dastardly celestial pattern at work.
Germany’s competition could be over as soon as Sunday, should they succumb to Spain. It did not take long for that dire prospect to breed dissent in the ranks. Ilkay Gundogan, the Manchester City midfielder, gave a bracing post-match interview in which he accused his team-mates of lacking hunger for the fight. You sensed that he had Niklas Süle, who played Asano onside en route to Japan’s winner, uppermost in his mind.
“We made it too easy for them, especially with the second goal,” Gundogan lamented. “I don’t know if an easier goal was ever scored at a World Cup. There was a lack of conviction. We relied too much on long balls, and the short ones we played we lost too easily. You felt that not everyone wanted the ball.”