Japan reached the World Cup knockout stages for the fourth time on Thursday – by what appeared to be a matter of millimeters.
Trailing 1-0 at halftime, Japan produced a remarkable comeback against Spain with two goals in quick succession in the second half, stunning the 2010 world champion to secure an unlikely spot in the last 16 at the expense of Germany.
But it’s Japan’s second goal that has been a topic of fierce debate in the aftermath of the game, specifically regarding whether the ball crossed the goal line before Kaoru Mitoma’s cutback pass to Ao Tanaka.
Tanaka’s bundled goal was initially ruled out after the linesman flagged that the ball had gone out of play.
However, after a video assistant referee (VAR) review, the goal was allowed to stand and Japan held on for an historic victory.
The result saw the Samurai Blue top Group E – an outcome no one would have foreseen before the World Cup – ahead of Spain and Germany, which bowed out of the tournament despite a 4-2 victory against Costa Rica.
Some were left incredulous as to why Tanaka’s goal was allowed to stand.
“There are 80 million Germans right now going mad, waiting for a picture that shows that that ball didn’t go out of play,” said former Scotland international Graeme Souness, speaking as a pundit on ITV.
Also speaking on ITV, former England international Eni Aluko said her instant reaction was that the ball had gone out of play.
But the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which outlines the laws of the game, says the ball is only out of play when “it has wholly passed over the goal line or touchline on the ground or in the air.”
In this case, it appears the curvature of the ball was judged to have been hanging over the goal line.
“That Japan goal almost defied physics. Incredible,” US soccer 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 offers a different perspective to other camera angles.
In two tweets on Friday, FIFA said VAR officials “used the goal line camera images to check if the ball was still partially on the line or not. Other cameras may offer misleading images but on the evidence available, the whole of the ball was not out of play.”
The goal means Japan will play Croatia in the knockout stages on Monday, while Spain plays Morocco on Tuesday.
Álvaro Morata gave Spain the lead at the Khalifa International Stadium after he headed home César Azpilicueta’s cross. Japan, which also stunned Germany earlier in the tournament, responded at the start of the second half with two goals in the space of three minutes.
Substitute Ritsu Dōan leveled the game before Ao Tanaka got the controversial winner soon after.
It came on a day of remarkable upsets in Qatar as Belgium, ranked second in FIFA’s rankings, crashed out of the tournament after a 0-0 draw with Croatia and Morocco’s 2-1 victory against Canada.