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"From tragedy to ecstacy" - Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu finds redemption in Doha after stunning win over Spain

13:57 GMT 03/12/2022
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December 1, 2022, will go down in Japanese football history as they pulled off the unimaginable, beating the formidable Spain 2-1 to top their 2022 World Cup group, which involved Germany and Costa Rica as well.

This World Cup campaign has been sensational for the Asian side, especially given the fact that they defeated two former World Champions, Germany and Spain, to reach the knockout stage. Given that nobody gave them a chance before the tournament, it consitutes a stunning achievement for Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu and his gritty team.

For the coach, a former Japanese international, it was a moment of redemption. As Moriyasu basked in the limelight of his country's qualification to the knockout stages at the expense of Spain and Germany, he would have felt a sweet sense of justice that the moment came in the country that also inflicted on him one of his most painful memories.

On 28th October 1993, Moriyasu was part of the Japan team that took on Iraq in the final game of the 1994 World Cup qualifiers in Doha. Japan needed a win to qualify for their first ever World Cup and were leading 2-1 as the match wound down to the 90th minute.

However, Iraqi forward Jaffar Omran scored in the 90th minute to break Japanese hearts and scuttle their qualification bid. Moriyasu termed that game the "Tragedy of Doha". He would end his international career in 1996 and never got to experience the World Cup as a player.

But fast forward 29 years and Moriyasu has exorcised the ghosts of Doha by steering his team to the knockout stages of the World Cup from the toughest group in the tournament. Tragedy turned into ecstacy for the former midfielder and how fitting that it happened in Doha.

And it was no walk in the park. Japan had to engineer a stunning comeback to defeat Germany 2-1 in the opening game of the World Cup. Just when it seemed that win would put them in a great position to go through, Moriyasu's boys suffered a 1-0 reverse at the hands of Costa Rica.

It left them with no choice but to defeat Spain in the final game of the group. However, it was not an enviable task. Luis Enrique's men were coming off a 7-0 win over Costa Rica and had held Germany to a 1-1 draw. They were playing terrific football to boot.

Japan were, expectedly, put under the pump by Spain in the game at the Khalifa International Stadium. They trailed 1-0 at half-time and it seemed Doha would once again bring heartbreak for Moriyasu.

But they decided to fight back and they did so in style. Two quickfire goals at the start of the second half from Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka put them 2-1 up. However, they needed to hang on desperately for an equaliser from Spain would have threatened their qualification.

"With a minute to go, I was thinking about the 'Tragedy of Doha' but exactly at that time, the players came aggressively to challenge for the ball," Moriyasu said. "I could feel that the times have changed. These players are playing in a new age of Japanese football."

But they hung on and registered a famous victory. For it not often that a team defeats two former World Champions in the group stages. The bitter aftertaste of tragedy had turned into sweet ecstacy for Moriyasu.

Next up in Moriyasu's sights is 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia. Will his team make their Doha sojourn even sweeter?