Keisuke Honda was elevated to national hero yesterday with banner front pages hailing his last-gasp equalizer against Australia that secured Japan’s berth to the World Cup.
The CSKA Moscow midfielder banged home a stoppage-time penalty at Saitama Stadium near Tokyo to give the Asian champions the draw they needed to propel them to Brazil as the first team to qualify.
“Japan qualifies for World Cup,” screamed the mass-selling Yomiuri Shimbun, in a headline echoed by most newspapers.
“Honda World Cup. Grandpa, I did it,” said Sports Nippon on a wraparound front page that showed the goal-scorer on his knees looking up to the sky.
The player’s grandfather died last month.
Japanese television yesterday morning devoted a large chunk of broadcast time to the dramatic equalizer off a penalty won after an apparently unwitting handball in the area by Australia’s Matthew McKay.
The 1-1 result left the Asian champions seven points clear in Group B, putting them through to their fifth straight World Cup. It was the first time they have sealed qualification on home soil.
More than 15,000 fans watching the game on screens at the National Stadium in Tokyo erupted on the final whistle into chants of “Nippon, Nippon,” while 2,500 supporters at the Nagai Stadium in Osaka shouted Honda’s name.
Boisterous celebrations in the city saw about a dozen fans plunging into the Dotonbori waterway.
However, the joy yesterday was tempered by warnings that Japan needed to up their game if they were to match the quality of teams they will meet in Brazil.
“It was a game in which Japan had to face a reality — they cannot beat Australia in 90 minutes at this moment,” Brazilian-born soccer commentator Sergio Echigo told Nikkan Sports. “Australia are not at their peak. Many of them are in their 30s ... and they slowed down in the second half. Top teams in the world are stronger than them.”
Echigo warned that Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni may need new blood and new tactics after the Confederations Cup later this month.
“There was no takeaway from the game other than Japan’s qualification for the World Cup,” former national youth team coach Ryohei Suzuki told tabloid Nikkan Gendai.
“Since the 1-0 defeat to North Korea, Zaccheroni has become passive in his selection of players, his tactics and everything. I don’t understand why he sticks to forming a team that relies so much on Honda,” he said.