On a mischievous Thursday night, it did appear possible to sense the roiling, quaking, and musing of so many of the 124 million Japanese, 84 million Germans, 47 million Spanish, 5 million Costa Ricans, and several billion other people who had no allegiance but labored breathing in their stomachs, nerves, and brains. Poor people tried so hard to comprehend World Cup Group E.
With permutations gushing out of the concurrent matches and partial scores of Germanys’ 4-2 comeback victory over Costa Rica and Japan’s 2-1 upset of Spain, Group E took a captive planet on a ride through its closing night—without even the courtesy of free airsickness bags. In the opening minutes, Spain had four points, Japan had three, Costa Rica had three, and Germany had one. By halftime, Spain had seven points, Germany had four, Japan had three, and Costa Rica had three. In the early stages of the second half, Japan had six points, Costa Rica had six points, Spain had four, and Germany had one. It ended with Japan having six points, Spain having four, Germany having four, and Costa Rica having three.
The two underdogs with leads could have eliminated both European heavyweights at that point, and Costa Rica might have advanced further than a Spain team that had defeated the Ticos, 7-0, earlier in group play. Japan led Spain 2-1 and Costa Rica led Germany 2-1. Nobody informed Enrique of the madness taking place in Khor, way up the road. Whew.
When the final whistle blew at Khalifa International Stadium alone, Japanese players ran ecstatically onto the field from the bench, Spanish players groaned in relief, and some Japanese fans just started sobbing appropriately. Their team had led them down a path that was beyond the capacity of the human mind: a 2-1 victory over Germany after falling behind 1-0; a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica; and a 2-1 victory over Spain after falling behind 1-0.
Twelve years after a game-changing World Cup victory from a previous generation, Spain, a young team beginning its quest for another national apex, looked at ease, which is frequently a bad idea in sports. Alvaro Morata used his head to deflect a Cesar Azpilicueta seeing eye shot well into the middle of the goal, pasting a frantic Shuichi Gonda, giving it its 1-0 lead over Japan in the 11th minute.
Doan then maneuvered to the top right corner of the box and fired a left-footed screamer that curled right and appeared to catch Unai Simon off guard. On its way to the top right corner of the net and overall commotion, it traveled to Simon’s left and glanced off his hand.
Madness first manifested as craziness 142 seconds later (as measured by the BBC), when Japanese goalkeeper Gonda played a beautiful long pass that was followed by some exquisite passing from Ao Tanaka and Ito that resulted in Doan, again, looming from the right. At least two Japanese players ran crazily after Doan’s shot across the front of the goal to the left side, where Mitoma lunged and deflected it back across after a solid defense had stopped it. Even though it all appeared to be illegal, Tanaka was able to sort of knee it easily into a gaping goal as a result. The following few minutes were spent waiting for video review to determine whether Mitoma had snagged it on time.
A video screen in the stadium showed the ball possibly still clinging to the last edge of the line once VAR responded with a yes, sending various kinds of surprise ricocheting throughout the stadium. The longer one looked at still images, the more ambiguous they appeared. Other still images clearly showed a ball out.
Japan had a 2-1 advantage, putting Spain in danger. Spain made attempts to mount offense in an effort to score the goal that could win the group for them, but Japan’s defense only slightly cracked twice. Enrique observed that “they were aggressively defending and closing the spaces.” It went on and on like that until it ended, until two stadiums 32 miles apart had some corners of the world into a bit of a tizzy.