Amid a crescendo of boos and whistles as neither side tried to score, Japan advanced to the knockout round at the World Cup because of a newly implemented tiebreaker — fewer yellow cards.
The Japanese, barely playing for the final 15 minutes of the match, lost to Poland 1-0 Thursday. But they still reached the round of 16 because Colombia beat Senegal 1-0 in the other Group H match.
Both Japan and Senegal finished the group phase with four points, had the same goal difference and the same amount of goals scored. Starting at this year’s tournament, disciplinary records — known as fair play — were added by FIFA as a tiebreaker. Japan had four yellow cards in its three group matches while Senegal had six.
It’s the first time since 1982 that no African team has advanced from the first round at the World Cup.
Poland, which had already been eliminated, got its goal from defender Jan Bednarek in the 59th minute. He beat his marker at the far post and volleyed in a swerving free kick from Rafal Kurzawa.
When Bednarek scored, Japan was facing elimination. However, Colombia’s goal in the 74th minute of the other group match in Samara meant Japan was in second place and would advance.
As the game continued, it barely got above walking pace, prompting many inside the Volgograd Arena to show their displeasure by whistling and booing.
During injury time, Japan’s players softly passed the ball among themselves, while their Polish opponents barely made an effort, content to finish the tournament with a victory following two losses.
Japan coach Akira Nishino made six changes to the starting lineup ahead of the match — all four of Japan’s scorers in the previous two games were left on the bench. But the Japanese still had more of the chances in the first half.
Poland had an early chance to take the lead in the 32nd minute when Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima stopped a header from Kamil Grosicki. Scampering across his goal before diving, Kawashima clawed the ball to safety just before it had crossed the line.
Robert Lewandowski then had a chance to put Poland ahead 2-0 — a result that would have allowed Senegal to advance — in the 74th minute after a swift counterattack but his effort flew over the bar.
Japan will next face the winner of Group G, either Belgium or England, on Monday in Rostov-on-Don. Colombia, which won the group with six points, will play the second place team in that group on Tuesday in Moscow.
Japan has reached the knockout round at the World Cup three times in the last five tournaments.