Japan's 'fair play' yellow card victory leaves a sour taste for Senegal
What an irony it was to see Japan celebrate going through to the knockout rounds of the World Cup on Thursday afternoon, under the laughable guise of "fair play". They shamed the World Cup, by literally not even trying towards the end of their 1-0 defeat to Poland.
Ridiculously, infuriatingly and improbably, Japan broke Senegal hearts, by virtue of collecting two fewer yellow cards than their Group F rivals, four to six.
That meant, in the eyes of the rulemakers, Japan had played fairer than Senegal across three group stage matches and into the next round they go, along with their flagrant disregard for the purest thing in football: trying your best, respecting the opposition and giving your all.
With around 15 minutes to go in Volograd, Japan dawdled on the half way line against a Poland side already going home, already winning the game and hardly in a mood to break sweat and win the ball back. For Japan, all they needed to do is protect a 1-0 deficit as long as they didn't pick up any more yellow cards, or a red. With Colombia beating Senegal, everything between Japan and Aliou Cisse's men was level. At times it resembled the old Monty Python sketch -- all that was missing were the elaborate costumes.
Something was needed to split the two and FIFA stated before the tournament that fair play would be the tiebreaker. Someone has to go through, after all. Japan won't care -- they'll rightly point out they have adhered to the rules of the game and profited from it. But it sticks in the craw for someone to be rewarded so richly by playing poverty football. There's surely a better way to settle things than this?
For the Disgrace of Gijon in 1982, read Volograd 2018. Of course, we were only in this situation -- games kicking off at the same time -- as a way of limiting such unprofessional and disrespectful play.
The Anschluss Game, the No.1 entry in ESPN FC's top World Cup controversies, caused a sea change at the World Cup. With West Germany and Austria aware a 1-0 win for the Germans would result in both teams qualifying for the next stage at the expense of a wonderfully vibrant Algeria, the pair played out a maddening 80 minutes of nothing football following Horst Hrubesch's early goal. The ball was passed around idly in midfield and backwards, making the match -- a World Cup clash, for goodness sake -- a total non event.
FIFA reacted, and from that point forward final group stage games would be played simultaneously, avoiding -- or, as has come to pass, lessening -- the chance of nefarious tactics.
But as news filtered through of the situation in Samara, Yerry Mina's strike levelling things up between Japan and Senegal in Group F, Akira Nishino's men knew they had the upper hand. Of course, they were hostages to fortune in that events between Senegal and Colombia could change but at the back of their minds they knew their two fewer yellow cards was a key to the knockout round. Poor, poor Senegal. An entertaining, intelligent, quicksilver side with Sadio Mane buzzing about in attack were sent home on a technicality.
Of course, cynics would argue Japan did what they had to do. Denmark had a similar situation against France in Group C and hardly exerted themselves knowing a 0-0 draw was enough to progress.
"We just needed one point, right?," coach Age Hareide said. "We were up against one of the best counter-attacking teams in the world. We would have been stupid if we opened up. We played to get the result and we did it."
Well, at least his team were not losing, so there's that.
Japan lost more than 1-0 on Thursday, though. They may have won a route to the last 16 but they lost their respect for football and the World Cup.
Alex Shaw is General Editor at ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @AlexShawESPN.