x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Eiji Kawashima, Japan's incredible growing goalkeeper

Japan's 27-year-old goalkeeper gave the appearance of a man growing taller and wider in every game at the Asian Cup.

Eiji Kawashima clings on to the ball and maintains a firm grip on Japan's hopes last night. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP
Eiji Kawashima clings on to the ball and maintains a firm grip on Japan's hopes last night. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Seldom can you witness somebody hit yet another growth spurt at an age nibbling at the cusp of 28, but a Belgium-based Japanese man seemed to manage it in Qatar.

They list him at six-foot tall and might well continue to do so in the match programmes at his club Lierse, but from Tuesday evening in an Asian Cup semi-final until last night in the Asian Cup final, Eiji Kawashima seemed to grow taller and wider and taller and wider until the Japanese goal seemed to luxuriate in the patrolling care of some sort of giant.

First, he rebuffed the first two South Korean penalty kicks in the shoot-out in Tuesday's semi-final with such authority that the third bidder shoved his try wide of the right post as if addled by the very thought of Kawashima, the fully-grown-yet-growing man.

Then he transformed the final against Australia last night into that rare match one could watch while thoroughly compelled by that unloved football debris known as a goalkeeper.

In fact, as Australia and Japan played on grippingly, each deserving of triumph, the looming spectre of penalty kicks started to seem less looming and less of a spectre. It began to seem downright enticing, just to see what might happen when the Australians took on Kawashima.

That is absurd - penalty kicks forever should remain about as welcome as gout - but then, so is a still-growing 27-year-old.

As he mushroomed, you could sense him soothing fretting hearts back in Tokyo and Osaka and all Japan at each moment the events in front of his team's goalmouth would threaten them with palpitations.

Fans must have started to feel almost secure knowing he guarded their interests, quite an escalation for a keeper marked reserve until he shone last May in a friendly against England.

"A couple of days ago I told Kawashima that I trusted him very much," Alberto Zaccheroni, the Japan manager, was saying on Tuesday. "I told him again today. And he did more than I expected."

And then he did still more in the final starting with that disturbance in front of his kingdom on 19 minutes when Tim Cahill headed the ball through the crowd and Harry Kewell flicked it on and the big man reflexively played the carom with his trailing left hand.

On 72 minutes, Kewell beat the offside trap for a clear view of the Japanese keeper and the Australian winger's left-footed drive looked a goal until Kawashima, his legs getting longer through the week, right-footed away the shot.

On 87, minutes Kewell ran free on a counter-attack, and Kawashima decided to intervene, charging out with large steps to lunge, disrupt and cover.

On 104 minutes, with still more crowded upheaval right before his eyes, substitute Robbie Kruse's adroit header sailed ambitiously toward the top left corner, but Kawashima used his clearly lengthened arms for a captivating right-handed swat from which he had to steady himself against the post.

Without those highlights and more, Yuto Nagatomo's continuing, skittering prowess on the left side against Luke Wilkshire would have gone unrewarded rather than creating Japan's picturesque goal on 109 minutes.

Occasionally, Kawashima exhorted or upbraided or generally gave grief toward his defence, a goalkeeper seldom more deserving of the holler.

Once in a melee, Australia's Mile Jedinak seemed to give Kawashima a swat on the side of his head, but that plan could not work, either.

So after all the inconvenience and melodrama, the behemoth stood waiting one last time in the mouth of the goal he had guarded like a prized domicile. He stood there as a very large man and waited, and waited.

The oblivious clock danced merrily on past 120 and 121 and almost to 122 as Australia's David Carney lined up a free kick just a shade outside the area after Shinji Okazaki had inadvertently used his forearm to help clear out an Australian bid.

Everybody waited. Khalifa Stadium waited. Tokyo waited. Sydney waited.

Kawashima waited, and it seemed proper that this fine Asian Cup final might require one last crescendo from him.

Then Carney's blast met with Japan's wall, and Carney corralled it again, and substitute Neil Kilkenny gasped at it, and it rattled around some in the area, and Japan cleared it, and the whistle ended it, and the amazing growing goalkeeper went running off ecstatically toward the celebration pile yanking his shirt upwards over his face.

Sprinting with his face covered and only its outline visible, he sort of resembled some intimidating movie monster, maybe even a fitting final incarnation.