Japan reached the knockout stage of the World Cup for the fourth time on Thursday – by what seemed like a matter of millimeters.
Trailing 1–0 at half-time, Japan staged a remarkable comeback against Spain with two goals in quick succession in the second half, helping the 2010 world champions secure an unlikely place in the last 16 at Germany’s expense.
But it is Japan’s second goal that has been a subject of fierce debate in the aftermath of the match, particularly over whether the ball crossed the goal line before Kaoru Mitoma’s cutting pass to Ao Tanaka.
Tanaka’s bundled goal was initially disallowed after the linesman declared the ball out of play.
However, after an assessment by the video assistant referee (VAR), the goal was allowed to stand and Japan held on to a historic victory.
As a result, the Samurai Blue topped Group E – an outcome no one had foreseen for the World Cup – ahead of Spain and Germany, who fell out of the tournament despite a 4–2 win against Costa Rica.
Some were incredulous why Tanaka’s goal was allowed to stand.
“There are 80 million Germans going crazy right now, waiting for a picture to show that ball hasn’t gone out of play,” said former Scotland international Graeme Souness, speaking as an expert on ITV.
Also on ITV, former England international Eni Aluko said her immediate reaction was that the ball was out of play.
But the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which outlines the rules of the game, says the ball is not out of play until “it has completely crossed the goal line or sideline on the ground or in the air”.
In this case, it appears that the curvature of the ball hung over the goal line. CNN has reached out to FIFA for clarity on the decision.
“That goal from Japan almost defied physics. Unbelievable,” said American football journalist Grant Wahl wrote on Twitter, while other social media users explained how a bird’s-eye view of a ball in relation to a goal line provides a different perspective than other camera angles.
Due to the goal, Japan will play against Croatia in the knockout phase on Monday, while Spain will play against Morocco on Tuesday.
Álvaro Morata put Spain ahead at the Khalifa International Stadium after heading in a César Azpilicueta cross. Japan, who also stunned Germany earlier in the tournament, responded at the start of the second half with two goals in three minutes.
Substitute Ritsu Dōan tied the match before Ao Tanaka was awarded the controversial winner soon after.
It came on a day of notable setbacks in Qatar as Belgium, second in the FIFA rankings, crashed out of the tournament following a 0-0 draw with Croatia and Morocco’s 2-1 win against Canada.