Japan Topples Germany, the World Cup’s Latest Fallen Favorite

DOHA, Qatar — These are the days in which the mighty fall. On Day 3 of the World Cup, Argentina was left reeling after suffering a chastening defeat to Saudi Arabia. On Day 4, it was Germany’s turn. Another of the pretournament favorites was left shocked and embarrassed by a supposed makeweight.

This time, Japan took center stage. Just like Saudi Arabia, it had struggled for air in the first half, falling behind to a penalty from Ilkay Gündogan and then holding on with grim determination to restrict the damage before halftime. And, just like Saudi Arabia, it capitalized on its good fortune, drawing level through Ritsu Doan and then claiming a victory with a goal from Takuma Asano.

Japan’s win is not, in truth, a shock of the same order as Saudi Arabia’s defeat of Argentina a day earlier: Japan is, after all, a regular presence at the World Cup, a feature of each of the last seven editions and, on occasion, a team that survives long enough to make it beyond the group stage. Its most famous victories, though, have come against the likes of Denmark and Colombia; it does not, or at least had not, generally made a seismic impact on the tournament.

Credit…Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Defeating Germany changed that with a stroke. Not simply because of the caliber of opponent — Coach Hansi Flick’s Germany boasts a core of players from Bayern Munich, as well as stars from Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund — but because of the likely consequences.

Drawn in the same group as another of the favorites, Spain, Germany — which began the game with a silent protest against FIFA’s armband ban — had precious little margin for error. Though this is not quite a knockout blow, should the Germans fail to beat Spain when they meet on Sunday, one of Europe’s great traditional powers would face the ignominy of a second successive elimination in the group stage.

It is tempting to wonder, too, if something of a pattern is starting to emerge. The opening days of World Cups tend to be just a touch chaotic, with even the most talented teams still settling into their shape and their rhythm, and those squads marked out as underdogs not yet confronted with cold, harsh reality.

Given the circumstances, that was always likely to be more pronounced in Qatar: Rather than the traditional three-week break in which to craft players from disparate clubs into something resembling a coherent unit, coaches had only a few days. The rosters of the favorites are packed with players who have spent the previous three months playing a game almost every three days.

It has not applied to everyone — France and England both sailed through their opening games — but nor are Germany and Argentina the only powerhouses to stumble. Earlier on Wednesday, Croatia, a finalist in 2018, had labored through a scoreless tie against Morocco. A day earlier, Denmark, having qualified imperiously, was held to a scoreless draw by Tunisia. Reputations, in these days of shock and awe, seem to count for very little.

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