Croatia defeats Japan in penalty kick shootout to advance to World Cup quarterfinals
AL WAKRAH, Qatar — Croatia, runners-up at the last World Cup, are alive in this one.
In a marathon round of 16 match Monday in Qatar, Croatia beat Japan on penalty kicks, 1-1 (3-1). Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livaković was the star of the game-ending shootout, the tournament's first, amazingly blocking three Japanese shots. Livaković tied a World Cup record with most saves in a shootout.
The win moves Croatia into the tournament's quarterfinals.
The final shootout was set up by a scoreless 30 plus minutes of extra time, where neither team could convert numerous scoring chances.
The match got to extra time at Al Janoub Stadium after riveting back and forth action for the 90-plus minutes of regulation and stoppage time.
Flipping its World Cup script, Japan scored first for once, in the waning minutes of the first half. In the 43rd minute, Japanese forward Daizen Maeda left-footed a point blank shot past Livaković for the score. It was only Maeda's second goal in international competition.
Then 10 minutes into the second half, Croatia evened the score. Forward Ivan Perišić took a long pass over the top from the right side and beautifully headed in the ball past Japanese goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda.
That was all the scoring, although both teams had numerous quality chances that failed to pierce their opponent's stellar defense.
Croatia is unbeaten in its last ten matches (seven wins and three draws dating to June). For Japan, it's a disappointing end, once again, in the round of 16. Japan made it this far at World Cups in 2002, 2010 and 2018, but lost each time. The only Asian countries to advance to the quarterfinals in the history of the tournament remain North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002.
Japan has been one of the major surprises at this World Cup, coming from behind, each time, to shock European powers Germany — a four-time World Cup winner — and Spain in the group stage. The victories resulted in the Blue Samurai finishing first in their power-packed group.
Japanese fans also played a part in the country's story here. They were lauded for cleaning up their sections after matches - bagging up water bottles, food wrappers and whatever else fans scatter during tense and emotional football matches.
"Basically our culture, our virtue, even for children, it's really a necessary behavior to clean up," said 45-year-old Tokyo resident Masashi Sato, "when you go outside and do something with others. Kind of like part of courtesy that we need to do."
Sato, who took part in the World Cup cleanups, says there are litterbugs in Japan, especially in urban areas. They'd be wise to emulate the football fans gathered in Doha he says. But he adds the behavior here in Qatar had as much to do with being good guests.
"Everybody [is] aware of how we should behave outside the country," Sato said. "We have to represent our country. Everybody is looking at us. So we have to be always polite to everybody, to show them Japanese have some common sense."
Croatia will take on Brazil in the quarterfinals on Friday.
NPR's Russell Lewis contributed reporting from Birmingham, Ala.
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