DOHA, Qatar — At Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Crossing, Japan fans were so exhilarated after their team’s huge upset of Germany, they sprinted into the road … on one of busiest streets in the world.
At a giant watch party in the Tokyo Dome — speaking of upsets, that’s where Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas — supporters hugged and burst into tears after their country’s epic 2-1 triumph.
In Saudi Arabia, a day earlier, a national holiday was called to commemorate its team’s shocking victory over Argentina, while many of the large number of Saudis living in Qatar flooded Doha’s streets, bringing traffic to standstill by joyously waving flags from the windows of their vehicles.
The sight of supporters celebrating and reveling in national pride is what makes the World Cup so special. Looking at those scenes, wherever your loyalty lies, can’t help but gladden the heart.
The shocking upsets continue
Japan overcame an early deficit to score two second-half goals and stun Germany in the World Cup opener for both teams.
And, from the United States‘ perspective, this tournament’s first two major stunners should also provide a measure of vindication.
Two months ago, Gregg Berhalter’s squad played their only two World Cup warm-up games, meeting Japan in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Nov. 23 and Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, four days later.
No one is pretending the USA results — or the performances attached to them — were good ones. The Japan game ended in a 2-0 defeat. The Saudi matchup was a dour affair, finishing 0-0 and with little mitigating entertainment.
“We got our butts kicked,” Berhalter said after the Japan game. “We’re not proud of it. We think we should have played much better.”
However, as the past two days in Qatar have shown, neither were those “friendlies” the utter disaster many American fans made them out to be, with some USA supporters even going as far as calling for Berhalter to be fired.
The American soccer Twitter-verse was outraged at the back-to-back disappointments against such supposedly weak opposition and tore into both the coach and his team, holding up the results as supposed evidence that the current World Cup campaign would be a forlorn exercise.
So, a couple of necessary facts here. Japan is a quality team that has grown in stature and danger level consistently over the past decade and more. After taking the lead against Germany, they held on bravely, but confidently, and are now in superb position to progress from one of the tournament’s strongest groups.
Saudi Arabia was outstanding in its Asian qualifying group, finishing on top of the standings with just one defeat from 10 games. While its comeback win against Lionel Messi‘s Argentina will go down as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, its coach and players were adamant they’re not finished yet.
Hindsight is wonderful, obviously, but that pair of results does add some retroactive context to what were seen as American warm-up catastrophes. No, the USA didn’t play well, which sometimes happens in tune-ups. And no, the opposition, as we have now seen, wasn’t some understrength bunch of no-hopers, but the eventual conquerors of a pair of World Cup favorites.
Saudi Arabia fans celebrate
Saudi Arabia fans celebrate after their team claimed a 2-1 victory against Argentina, scoring one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
As for the celebrations, they are continuing. In Tokyo, translator Hirotaka Kondo told me via telephone, fans partied long into the night after the Germany game finished around midnight. The next morning, primary school teachers encouraged their students to make messages of thanks and support to send to the heroic members of Samurai Blue.
“The people here love this team, but everyone knew about Germany’s World Cup history and strength,” Kondo said. “This is a special day. It feels like this is the day soccer in Japan grew up.”
Saudi Arabians, thousands of them, seemed to spend their new national holiday planning to make tracks for the Qatari border, with reports of vast numbers traveling overland and heading for the World Cup host site before Sunday’s second game against Poland.
And, in one viral clip shared widely online, a Saudi fan got so excited by his team’s win that he ripped the door to his home clean off its hinges.
It has been one of the most memorable starts to a World Cup, and Saudi Arabia and Japan have had a lot to do with it. They have reminded us that no World Cup game is over before it starts.
That there are no guarantees in a tournament such as this.
Stu Holden, Maurice Edu and Landon Donovan preview the United States’ match with England on Friday.