Japan vs Paraguay: Penalty-kick heartbreak for Japan, but Asian soccer on the rise

Japan fell 3-5 on penalty kicks at the end of a hard-fought scoreless Japan vs Paraguay match that revealed just how far Asian soccer has come.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Japan's Yuichi Komano (3) and teammates react after today's second round Japan vs Paraguay match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. June 29, 2010.

Today’s defensive battle was, in many ways, a litmus test for whether Asian soccer has truly arrived.

Could Japan, an elite team in a second-tier soccer continent defeat Paraguay, a second-tier team on soccer’s elite continent (That would be South America. Sorry, Europe)?

There’s no question that Asian soccer has improved in the past couple decades. And this World Cup bears that out.

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Both Japan and South Korea (Asia’s other elite team) advanced out of the first round by beating extremely talented African nations (Cameroon and Nigeria, respectively) that have some of the world’s best players, as well as solid European teams (Denmark and Greece, respectively), before being outclassed by soccer powerhouses (the Netherlands and Argentina, respectively).

Excluding 2002 – when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup and enjoyed the benefits of playing at stadiums stuffed with home fans – Saudi Arabia is the only “Asian” team to have made it out of the group stage since North Korea’s shocking advance to the quarterfinals in England in 1966.

So South Korea and Japan have demonstrated progress. But can they really compete with the world’s best?

The answer: Not quite.

Despite a valiant and impressive performance in the pouring rain on Saturday, South Korea fell to Uruguay (another solid but second-tier South American team) after a brilliant late strike by striker Luis Suarez. The Reds often looked as good or better than a very good Uruguay team, yet couldn’t find a way to win.

And neither could Japan.

Much of today’s game was played near Japan’s goal mouth. And Paraguay nearly pried open that iron maw in the 20th minute after a beautiful 360 spin move by Lucas Barrios fizzled into a weak shot stuffed by Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima. Most of Paraguay’s best chances throughout the game ended the same way, with Japan answering quickly in waves of royal blue on the counterattack.

Aside from Daisuke Matsui’s sinking shot, which hit the crossbar in the 21st minute, however, Japan never looked close to scoring. Paraguay’s famously smothering defense snuffed out Japan’s attacking creativity.

And so it went, and went, and went, through two extra time periods and into what no soccer fan likes to see: penalty kicks.

Paraguay’s Edgar Barreto buried his to start. Then Japan’s Yasuhito Endo buried his.

But disaster struck for Japan when Yuichi Komano hit the cross bar. Paraguay made all of their five attempts, leaving no room for Japan to make up for the deficit.

It’s a tough blow for Japan, but they should leave the World Cup secure in the knowledge that they’ve taken Asian soccer to new heights.

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World Cup 101:

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