Japan coach Akira Nishino admitted his desperate disappointment after seeing the Blue Samurai bow out of the World Cup in an agonising 3-2 defeat against Belgium on Monday in the last 16.
“I feel it was a tragedy, but I have to accept the defeat as a fact, I feel devastated and very disappointed,” said Nishino.
“We started off very well, but at the end, right at the very end, to concede a goal like that is not expected.
Nacer Chadli’s 94th-minute strike at the end of a counter-attack gave Belgium a stunning come-from-behind 3-2 victory in their last-16 tie to floor the Japanese in Rostov.
Japan had been 2-0 up after scoring twice early in the second half through Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui.
The Japan players slumped to the turf at the end, and Nishino said they were too stunned to talk it through immediately afterwards.
Instead of facing Brazil in a mouth-watering quarter-final in Kazan on Friday, Japan are heading home while Belgium march on.
“I told the players to take a shower in the changing room, because they were just standing around stunned. I will talk to them when we are back at the hotel,” said Nishino.
“When we were 2-0 up and I didn’t change my players, I really wanted another goal, we were controlling the game but at that point Belgium upped their game when they really had to,” Nishino added.
“We were determined to disrupt a Belgium side at their best, but at the end we couldn’t really match them.”
Belgium pulled a goal back via a freak Jan Vertonghen header in the 69th minute, and substitute Marouane Fellaini then equalised five minutes later.
The match was heading for extra time when Keisuke Honda opted to try his luck from a long-range free-kick in injury time.
Thibaut Courtois saved the attempt, and Belgium broke from the corner that followed to snatch the winner and book a last-eight tie with Brazil.
“We wanted to decide the match with a late free-kick and I thought we were going into extra-time, but we didn’t expect that kind of super counter-attack,” the coach said.
“My players didn’t expect to see the ball carried into our half in a flash on time which decided the game.”
Nishino admitted struggling with his emotions at the late sucker punch.
“When we conceded the goal, first I was questioning myself, whether I had control of the game, as we were 2-0 up and then the score was reversed,” he said.
“It wasn’t the players who were to blame, maybe it was me who lost control of the game.
“I questioned myself and my tactics.
“I felt there wasn’t much in it between the teams, so maybe it was my decisions as a coach and we couldn’t keep up when Belgium upped their game.”
© Agence France-Presse