An Unlucky Handball Sends Japan Out Of The World Cup

Photo: Maja Hitij (Getty)

An exhilarating World Cup round of 16 rematch between the Netherlands and Japan got decided in favor of the Dutch in the 90th minute, thanks to a penalty kick converted by forward Lieke Martens. The PK gave the Dutch a 2-1 win over the same team that kicked them out of the 2015 World Cup, and it put them in the quarterfinals for the first time in their history.

Japan will exit the tournament feeling hard-done not just because of the late, game-changing call, but also because this game was just a few inches away from swinging in their favor. After Martens gave the Netherlands the lead with a pretty backheel off a set piece early on, Japan responded with some nicely orchestrated passing and movement to create an equalizer for Yui Hasegawa. The Japanese, however, could have scored a couple more goals with just a bit more precision, as Yuika Sugasawa hit the post in the 20th minute, and Hina Sugita clanged it off the crossbar in the 79th.

The game was on track for extra time until a shot in the box by Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema. Her attempt hit 2011 World Cup heroine Saki Kumagai on the arm from point blank range, and the whistled handball set up the easy opportunity for Martens’s game winner—the record 23rd penalty already called in the tournament.

By the letter of the law, Kumagai is making her body bigger with her arm, but she’s clearly moving her limb out of the way as the shot comes towards her. The call was correct, but it’s unfortunate and frustrating for Japan to know that, had the shot come from a bit farther away, Kumagai could’ve had the time to get out of the way. (And when penalties like that get called, at what point does the optimal offensive strategy become kicking the ball intentionally at the defender’s arm?)

Japan’s elimination means that the USWNT will be the only non-European team in the quarterfinals, while the Netherlands will go on to face Italy on Saturday.


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