Belgium scored a 94th-minute winner but Japan’s show on and off the field attracted huge praise.

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Gracious in defeat, Japan leave Russia World Cup with pride
There was disbelief among the supporters after the late goal that sent Japan packing [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Follow Al Jazeera’s coverage of the World Cup 2018 here.

Japan’s national football team and its fans suffered a massive heartbreak on Monday night, losing to a last-gasp Belgium goal that shattered its hopes of reaching the World Cup 2018 quarter-finals.

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Belgium, 58 places above Japan in FIFA rankings, scored a 94th-minute winner resulting in elation or the European side and left the sole Asian surviving side in the World Cup thus far devastated.

But before leaving Russia, players and fans ensured they left an indelible mark not only on the tournament, but also followers of the game.

The fans cleaned up the stadium and the players did likewise in the dressing room before leaving a note saying “spasibo” which translates to “thank you” in English.

Off the field, fans fought back tears and wondered what could have been after their dreams were crushed late on.

The team was on track to reach their first quarter-final in three last-16 attempts after going 2-0 ahead early in the second half, only to see Belgium roar back and snatch a 3-2 win with an explosive counterattack deep into stoppage time.

Despite a 3am kickoff in Japan, the trending hashtag “Nebusoku Japan” which translates to “lack of sleep Japan” ensured a huge following in the country.

“We had a really good chance. It would’ve been great to win but the players showed us a great game of football,” Shunji Suga, a fan who stayed up all night for the game, told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting Japan to do this well so we should say thanks to the coach. The players deserve to come home with their heads held high.”

Fuji News Network reported a company called Ookami provided sleeping bags for employees who came into work to watch the game.

“When we took the lead, I thought we were going to win,” said 21-year-old Nao Okada, who burst into tears at a Tokyo sports bar as the final whistle sounded.

“It hurts, but it was a really good game and I feel moved. I want Japan to keep playing hard next time.”

Kaneshita Misaki, 23, added: “That was a spirited battle. I have to go to work now, but I can work hard because that was a good game.”

Following the loss, some supporters also tweeted “Sorry Coach Nishino”, apologising to the national team coach as there were doubts surrounding his ability to lead the team far in the tournament.

Nishino was appointed coach two months before the World Cup following the sacking of Vahid Halilhodzic.

The federation came in for heavy criticism for the dismissal so close to the tournament but Japan’s performances in Russia suggested it was a gamble that paid off.

“I don’t think the players were to blame, I think it was me who might have lost control of the game,” said Nishino after the game.

“When the goal was conceded, I blamed myself, and I question my tactics. As for the result, I am very disappointed. I am devastated.”

Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya pedestrian scramble, normally the site of post-game revelry, was markedly more subdued as fans staggered out of sports bars into the harsh early daylight after the game wrapped up at about 5 am local time, devastated by the manner of defeat but content at the team’s performance.

“Just a little bit more … it was a harsh result,” said Kenta Saito, 61, a former school football coach and a qualified referee.

Players were devastated on the field after conceding a 94th-minute goal that sealed Japan’s exit from the World Cup [Murad Sezer/Reuters]
There was not much joy off the field either with fans in shock [Issei Kato/Reuters]