'Japanese Messi' sends brave South Africa crashing to 1-0 defeat in Olympics opener
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CAPE TOWN – Depleted South Africa bravely battled the odds but tasted defeat in their Tokyo Olympics Group A opening match after they went down 1-0 to hosts Japan at the Tokyo Stadium on Thursday.
After a goalless first half which was dominated by Japan, South Africa managed to retain a clean sheet, thanks to goalkeeper Ronwen Williams' inspiring saves.
In the days leading up to the match, South Africa suffered a spate of withdrawals for medical reasons, and the prevailing protocols seriously disrupted the team's training opportunities.
Japan were off to an enterprising start and managed early sorties deep into South Africa's half. South Africa were slow off the mark, and given Japan's penetrative raids, a score seemed imminent.
It could well have materialised in the fourth minute, but Japan's Takefusa Kubo failed with a set piece on the edge of the opposition penalty area. His free-kick bounced off the wall and veered away harmlessly.
Japan's pressure spells continued unabated, and they created scoring opportunities as South Africa's defence battled to live with their pace. Strikers Ritsu Dōan and Daichi Hayashi came close to scoring, but a mixture of brave goalkeeping by Ronwen Williams and wayward marksmanship saw South Africa's defence remain intact as the match approached the halfway mark of the first half.
South Africa briefly held the upper hand around the half-hour mark and managed to round the defence out wide on the right flank. However, nothing came of a mundane goalmouth cross.
Japan shook off this lapse with a wave of attacks that sporadically produced gilt-edge scoring chances, but Williams stood out like the Rock of Gibraltar between the sticks.
On the one occasion, Japan managed to beat Williams, but their effort was justifiably ruled offside by Venezuela referee Jesús Valenzuela in the 34th minute.
A minute ahead of first-half regulation time, a close-in Kubo free-kick flew fractionally wide of the target as Williams was trapped out of position.
In the second half, Japan continued their dominance, and Williams pulled off one save after the other, until the 70th minute when the breakthrough finally emerged, courtesy of Kubo. His angled shot from just outside a packed goalmouth ricocheted off the right and past the despairing dive of Williams.
Kubo, the poster boy of Japanese football is on the books of La Liga club Real Madrid. Their fans refer to him as Real Madrid's 'Japanese Messi'.
South Africa could well have been on level terms two minutes after Japan's defence were napping. A burst of snappy inter-passes took play into Japan's penalty area where the defence sprung several openings, one of which fell to unmarked Thabo Cele plumb in front. His powder puff shot went straight into the arms of Japan goalkeeper Kosei Tani.
There were further half-chances for South Africa as the second half wound to its close, but despite their good fortune, they were unable to capitalise.
In the final minute, South Africa's Teboho Mokoena curled in a close-in free-kick. However, the effort flew over the crossbar.