By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
South Africa’s defensive wall held out for 70 minutes before hosts Japan finally found the net for the only goal in their Group A match at the Tokyo Stadium on Thursday night.
With 2012 Olympic champions Mexico sweeping France aside 4-1 in the earlier Group A match, South Africa already face an uphill battle to reach the knockout stages.
In 2016, South Africa had held out for a 0-0 draw with hosts Brazil and deep into this match it looked like history could repeat itself.
However, a crisp left-footed strike from Japan’s Real Madrid 20-year-old Takefusa Kubo clipped the inside of Ronwen Williams’ post before settling in the back of the net. That was enough to secure a valuable three points in what is the men’s Group of Death at these Games.
To be fair, it was probably the right result on the night as Japan showed more ambition against a South African team who were content to sit back for long periods and let their opponents come to them. The danger was always going to be that the South Africans would tire in the heat and let their guard down the longer the game progressed.
And so it proved when Kuba found himself unmarked on the edge of the area and curled the ball beyond the right of a diving Williams for the game’s only goal.
South Africa had come into the match undercooked, having been forced into isolation after two players had tested positive for Covid-19 in the lead-up and they hadn’t had time to gel as a team on the pitch.
However, they could well have shared the spoils after Luther Singh stabbed the ball straight at goalkeeper Kosai Tani from close range in the 78th minute. Meanwhile, Japan’s only other clear-cut opportunity of the match had come in the 56th minute when Williams made a quality reflex save with the scores still at 0-0.
There was plenty of whistle in the game and much of it was in favour of South Africa, who drew 14 free kicks out of their opponents. The last one, deep into four minutes of stoppage time, came on the edge of Japan’s area, but the opportunity was wasted by Teboho Mokoena.
Overall, the pattern of the game was established in the first half. South Africa started with five at the back and looked to take the sting out of a Japan side which had a surfeit of possession, some 60% of it in a goalless first half. Williams was the busier of the two keepers with the hosts having 11 attempted shots, with five on target, but nothing particularly threatening.
South Africa were better in the second half with the match taking on a higher tempo. However, they were only dangerous on sporadic counter-attacks and with Japan again enjoying the bulk of possession and pushing forward at every opportunity, the signs were there that the breakthrough would come and that one goal would be enough to take the points.
And so it proved, even if it had to take a sublime finish by Japan’s Real Madrid winger to settle matters.