By Michael Lewis
As we were reminded Thursday, soccer can be the cruelest and most confounding of games.
Senegal played its hearts out in the World Cup continued to do so in its final Group H match, only to be thwarted by Colombia, which recorded a 1-0 victory.
Japan, on the other hand, made seven or eight changes from its last match, and was happy to settle for a 1-0 loss to previously winless Poland.
Both teams finished tied with the same number of points, goals scored and goals surrendered. So, the next tie-breaking criteria was Fair Play as in which team had accrued the fewest yellow and red cards.
The Asians were awarded four yellow cards to the African side’s six.
So the Japanese were given the opportunity to move on to the Round of 16. The Senegalese? They packed for a somber plane ride home as no African side survived the opening round for the first time since the 1962 World Cup.
“We did not go for victory, but we just relied on the other match,” Japan head coach Akira Nishino said. “That was slightly regrettable, but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans.
“I am really not happy about how we played but we wanted to go through to the round of 16 and we have, and that is the only salvation that I get.”
How passive was Japan? When Makoto Hasebe came on a sub with eight minutes remaining, he made the referee’s card gesture to his teammates that they would move on if the scores of both matches remained the same.
Nishino said he passed on instructions to the squad to take no risks and collect no yellow cards when Hasebe came in.
“What if we conceded another goal and it was 2-0?” he said. “We went through. Therefore, perhaps it was the right decision.”
It made a mockery of the game as neither side did not play very much soccer. It reminded me of a 1982 World Cup group match between West Germany and Austria. The West Germans needed a win to advance, the Austrians only a tie. After Horst Hrubesch scored for the former in the 10th minute, both teams were content not to go on attack as most of the action was at midfield. A wire service correspondent, I believe he was from United Press International, wrote that both sides played as though they needed a visa to move into the opposing team’s side of the field.
Yes, Nishino followed the rules and I have to blame FIFA for that. Something else but whether you have accrued yellow and red cards must be used to decide who survives the group stage.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for sportsmanship, but who says a player wrongfully gets carded in a match? Is a rough tackle that results in a yellow card on the same plane as a goalkeeper who gets carded for time wasting?
It’s too late for this competition, but FIFA must figure out a better way for Qatar 2022.