Volgograd, Russia — Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last at the World Cup.
Fair play, a newly implemented tiebreaker in the group stage of the world’s biggest soccer tournament, was put into use for the first time Thursday and Japan came out as the beneficiary.
Despite losing 1-0 to Poland, the Japanese were able to advance to a round of 16 match against Belgium because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal, which lost to Colombia by the same score at the same time.
Once Colombia had scored in Samara, Japan knew it had done enough to advance even though it was losing late in its match. The Japanese players slowed play down to almost nothing, softly passing the ball back and forth in little triangles in their own end to waste time.
“My decision was to rely on the other match,” Japan coach Akira Nishino said. “I’m not too happy about this but … I forced my players to do what I said. And we went through.
“It was an ultimate decision for me to make. We did not go through with victory, but we just relied on the other match and I feel that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans.”
The fans at the Volgograd Arena showed their displeasure by booing and whistling loudly over the final minutes. Poland, happy to get a victory after two losses, did little to pressure the opposing side.
Both Japan and Senegal finished the group phase with four points, had the same goal difference and the same amount of goals scored. They also played to a 2-2 draw on Sunday. 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.
Overall, Japan committed only 28 fouls in three group matches, among the fewest in the tournament. Senegal committed 44 fouls.
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 meant Japan was in second place and would advance.
As the game continued, it barely got above walking pace.
“It was for us more important for us to get into the next round than to win the match,” Japan midfielder Gotoku Sakai said.
Nishino made six changes to the starting lineup ahead of the match, saying some of his players were fatigued. 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.
Colombia 1, Senegal 0: Yerry Mina scored on a header in the 74th minute and Colombia advanced to the knockout stage. Senegal became the first team ever eliminated by a new tiebreaker — number of yellow cards.
Colombia, which played in the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil, finished atop its group and is the fourth South American team to advance. Senegal’s elimination means no African teams are left.
Belgium 1, England 0: In a match neither team had to win, Belgium came out on top and took first place in its group. Adnan Januzaj scored with a curling shot in the 51st minute on a night of little tension or attacking intent.
With the victory, Belgium gets what appears to be an easier match in the next round against Japan on Monday in Rostov-on-Don. England will face Colombia on Tuesday in Moscow.
Both teams had advanced to the round of 16 before the match.
Although Belgium was the winner of the group, it might have the tougher road to the final with Brazil, Portugal, France and Argentina possible future opponents. If England gets past Colombia, it could face Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden or Switzerland on its way to a possible final.
Belgium is one of only three teams to advance to the knockout round with 3-0 records from the group stage. Croatia and Uruguay are the others.
England and Belgium made a combined 17 changes to their starting lineups to rest players for the knockout round. Harry Kane, the leading scorer at the tournament with five goals, was on the bench for England. So was Romelu Lukaku, who has scored four for Belgium.
Tunisia 2, Panama 1: Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri set up a second-half goal and then scored one of his own to help his side secure its first victory in a World Cup in four decades.
The striker’s hard, rising shot in the 66th minute lifted Tunisia. It came 15 minutes after Khazri’s pinpoint square pass produced Fakhreddine Ben Youssef’s equalizer.
Panama had taken the lead in the 33rd minute through an own-goal when Jose Luis Rodriguez’s hard shot deflected off of Yassine Meriah, which sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Tunisia hadn’t won a World Cup game since a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978.
Both Group G teams were already eliminated going into the match.