Spurred on by a loud and enthusiastic home crowd, co-host Japan has opened its World Cup campaign with a 2-2 draw against Belgium. The Group H match was hard fought and very physical.
Japan took the early momentum, getting to the ball quicker and often out-jumping the taller Red Devils to control balls in the air. Most of the scoring opportunities came off defensive turnovers, and long passing plays. Belgian coach Robert Waseige was impressed by Japan's home fans, saying "it was fantastic. They were more than just a 12th player for the Japanese team. It was an exceptional and fair crowd. Exceptional."
The best chance in the first half went to Belgium in the 28th minute, but Japanese keeper Seigo Narazaki made a fine stop on a header from eight meters. Japan controlled the ball 58 percent of the time in the first half, but the game remained scoreless until the 57th minute. After Belgium was awarded a free kick, the ball was headed high into the air several times in Japan's box before coming to Marc Wilmots, who bicycle-kicked it into the net.
Japan equalized just two minutes later as Takayuki Suzuki took a long pass and poked it into Belgium's net. The home fans went wild in the 67th minute, as Junichi Inamoto gave Japan a 2-1 lead. But the celebration only lasted until the 75th minute, when Peter Van Der Heyden took advantage of another long pass as he dented the net to make it 2-2.
Japan strongly pressured Belgium the rest of the game, and had an apparent goal by Inamoto disallowed in the 85th minute, before settling for the 2-2 draw. Hidetoshi Nakata says he thinks Japan has room for improvement.
"For the first game, 2-2 was not so bad," he said. "But I do believe that there were more chances to make more goals, and I hope to do that."
In South Korean action, Costa Rica spoiled China's World Cup debut with a 2-0 victory, while co-host South Korea beat Poland 2-0.
On Wednesday in Japan, Germany can clinch a berth in the second round when they face Ireland in Ibaraki. Russia takes on Tunisia in Kobe.