SAITAMA, Japan, AP
Alternately thrilling and disappointing a passionate crowd, Japan tied Belgium 2-2 in a wide open World Cup game Tuesday.
Japan came from down a goal on Takayuki Suzuki’s 59th-minute score, then Junichi Inamoto’s superb solo effort in the 67th minute gave the home team a 2-1 lead after Marc Wilmots converted a 57th minute scissor-kick to put the Europeans ahead.
But in the 75th minute, Peter Van Der Heyden escaped his defender on the left side to take a pass and chip in a shot over Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki from the edge of the penalty area.
Still, Japan’s French coach Philippe Troussier said the home fans should not be dissatisfied with the draw.
“We can consider this point as a historic one because it’s the first point Japan have gained in a World Cup,” Troussier said. “I’m satisfied because everything is still possible in the next two matches and I think we have a strong chance (to advance).”
The action off the field was almost as exciting as the show on it, as the Japan supporters created a party atmosphere at the Saitama stadium — built especially for the tournament.
The crowd turned the 63,700 capacity stadium into a sea of blue — Japan’s team color — even though more than 8,000 seats remained empty.
The atmosphere began to build long before kick off as Japanese fans banged drums, clapped and chanted “Nippon, Nippon.”
The national flag, the Hinomaru, was visible in every corner of the ground and huge banners, including one reading “Welcome to Blue Heaven,” fluttered over one stand.
As the teams lined up for the national anthems, three jet fighters flew over the stadium.
Yet the first 45 minutes fell a touch flat, with Belgium creating the only real chances.
In the 23rd minute, Gert Verheyen rose above his markers eight meters (yards) out to send Jacky Peeters’ cross just wide of the right post.
Six minutes later, Wilmots saw his header turned away after a lunging dive by Japan keeper Narazaki, and in the 36th minute, Goor drove his shot wide of the left post from inside the area.
But after Belgium had taken the lead through Wilmots, Japan shifted into first gear, equalizing through Suzuki before Inamoto scored a remarkable goal.
Inamoto took the ball just inside the Belgium half and went on a thirty-meter run that took him past two challenges and into the area before the player clipped the ball into the top right corner of the net.
Late on, Japan could have grabbed the winner.
Inamoto weaved his way around two defenders in the area and put the ball in the back of the net in the 85th minute, but the referee ruled the effort out for a foul.