ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: When the first goal went in, everyone thought: Fluke. Belgium will score soon enough, and score plenty more.
Then the second from Japan; and around me British, Chinese, Austrian and Belgian journalists got a good look at each other’s tonsils.
I trembled at the thought of something special in the offing - an Asian triumph unlike any since the heights of South Korea’s 2002 campaign.
But it proved too high a climb. Two headed goals from two 6-footers was excusable, maybe, but what followed was utter naivety, to be polite about it. A corner-kick with 30 seconds to go, and Japan could have played it short but no - they chose to lift it high over their own heads, into the arms of a 2m-tall goalie ... and the rest is heartbreak and history missed.
This had almost all the best bits of the World Cup rolled into it: From optimism to frustration in 20 minutes; the sight of a swashbuckling Japan pushing forward even when 2-0 up, as though to atone for a farcical last game; no time-wasting, no flopping from either side. And all of the action topped off by the Japanese stadium - and locker-room - cleaning act so beloved by Western media.
“Best game of the World Cup,” I overheard a Colombian fan tell his Japanese counterpart, who waved it off and bowed his head effusively.
And it’s been this way for each of the knockout games. Even the low-scoring, extra time affairs have been accompanied by nail-chewing drama, penalties or otherwise.
Yet the excitement was supposed to taper off after the group stage, as in previous editions where teams ditch an all-out approach and often play to avoid losing. Instead, we’ve been treated to engrossing encounters, some of which I’ve had the fortune to witness in the flesh.
THE POWER OF FOOTBALL COMPELS YOU
Of course it’s not been perfect - on the pitch, question marks persist over VAR, as they do over issues of sexism and equality off it.
On an even wider scale, Russia’s economic and political manoeuvres remain murky at best, but still Vladimir Putin will take delight in - so far - having seen none of the problems the West had taken great pains to warn of.
As an England fan announced in a viral tweet: “Back from 2 weeks in Russia alive. I wasn’t attacked by blood thirsty hooligans, I wasn’t eaten by a bear & I haven’t been poisoned or killed.”
Returning to the football, and with the odd exception, it’s been a non-stop showcase of athletic brilliance, dizzy showboating, breathtaking golazos and compelling narratives aplenty - from giants felled to underdogs having their day; from the biggest names flaming out to future stars burning bright.
Best World Cup ever? Some journalists are proclaiming it so, but let’s reserve judgment till Jul 15.
But I’ll admit - being here has reminded me of how I fell in love with the sport as a boy watching fuzzy Premiere 12 broadcasts. It has also reminded me of the undeniably unifying power of watching a selection of 11 individuals laying it all on the line for their country’s pride and honour.
“We need to die on the pitch,” said Russia’s striker Artem Dzyuba, hours before he converted a penalty to send their knockout tie against Spain to extra time and then spot-kicks - the result, already immortalised in local, if not all of footballing fable.
Try imagining what it’s like to be Russian, football fan or not, and have all this unfold before your eyes. You would not come close.
“Just a nervous breakdown!!!” Vyacheslav, my new friend in Rostov, texted me in Google-translated English at the end of 90 minutes.
Then, after the shootout: “Super game today turned out. All of Russia savours this magnificent victory after a bitter struggle!”
Oh, the drama.