x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Japan-South Korea had makings of a great football game

Last night's Asian Cup semi-final between Japan and South Korea was full of drama and controversy – and hugely memorable.

Japan's goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima jumps to effect a save.
Japan's goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima jumps to effect a save.

You know those gripping scenes when a football team of grown men suddenly stream up a pitch en masse toward an impromptu group hug that resembles some appealing return to kindergarten?

Well, imagine a major semi-final in which both teams got a turn at this exhilaration, and both turns came after 119 minutes.

Picture one side churning toward their bench after a whiplash, jaw-dropping goal late in the 120th minute that saved them from impending demise. Then picture the other side charging toward their stout goalkeeper just moments later after he completely shut out the opposition during penalty kicks.

And as if that did not suffice, mix in a highly debatable penalty that changed the score in the 96th minute and threatened the game with concluding abysmally and contained its own missed spot kick followed by a made rebound.

Tally all those theatrics plus a taut opening 90 minutes, and you have the Japan-South Korea Asian Cup semi-final at Al Gharafa Stadium.

You have South Korea ahead 1-0 with a penalty, Japan drawing level on a gorgeous construction, Japan leading 2-1, South Korea drawing level dramatically, Japan winning the penalties by 3-0 and the potential for Seoul and Tokyo and beyond to prattle about this thing for eons.

Some games end when time expires, some fizzle from memory after a day or so and some linger in mind for years and maybe even decades. Tick this one in category No 3.

It had a buffet line of vividness. It had an entrenched rivalry among neighbours, a bold, energetic first half, a tense, unpredictable second half.

It had the trained but human mind of a referee - in this case, Khalil Al Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia - with history showing that fans just adore nothing any more than conversing about the trained but human mind of a referee.

Then it meandered into extra time only to find somehow a startling penalty, a startling equaliser and a startling set of penalties. In a stadium, it's generally a privilege to be startled.

First, five minutes beyond full time with the younger South Korea slightly more vibrant, Japan's dazzling Keisuke Honda slid a typically clever ball from atop the box toward Shinji Okazaki running forward, but the ball did seem to skitter away harmlessly and irrespectively of Hwang Jae-won's cement-truck crash into Okazaki.

Al Ghamdi spotted the foul but felt unsure of its location, whereupon the linesman pointed inside the box, whereupon the referee pointed to the ground ominously.

Honda dribbled the penalty left, and Jung Sung-ryong halted it with his trailing hand, but substitute Hajime Hosogai rushed in - maybe even prematurely - to blast it home. Apparently a deserving match would end in undeserved deflation.

"I believe as human beings referees sometimes make mistakes, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but it was quite strange when the referee pointed outside the penalty area and in the meantime the linesman pointed to inside," said Cho Kwang-rae, the South Korea manager.

"That was strange. But I think it is part of the game and I admit the decision of the referee."

The call hovered over the proceedings and seemed it would hover over the years before it gained company in that hovering.

By the time the clock edged on past 119 and raced through the middle part of that 120th minute, the boos came towards Japanese players who toppled in baffling and time-consuming injuries. The whole thing waned, and Honda of Japan tripped Lee Young Pyo of South Korea, setting up a free kick from the left edge of the area.

Ki Sung-yueng shipped it over to the right of the box, where it bounced from Kim Shin-wook's head across to Lee Young Pyo's foot and back in frantic pinballing to Son Heung-min, whose shot met deflection rightward to Hwang, the penalty-maker. With his left foot he steered it masterfully through the mass into the right-hand side of the goal, and a sprinting bedlam ensued.

"They never gave up," Cho said.

So to penalties, before which Alberto Zaccheroni, the Japan manager, told his sagging players, "Let's have the confidence when we shoot the penalties, and let's win."

And while it is his job to say that, this heaving match somehow possessed another twist.

Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima began rebuffing shots - Koo with both gloves, Lee with his right elbow - until Hong Jeong-ho, the substitute, shanked his wide right of both a diving Kawashima and the post.

Soon Yasuyuki Konno clinched it by bunting it high and right, and over in the corner Kawashima had a zany swarm rushing toward him just as two great sports countries had years of zany chatter rushing toward them.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

Match report