MOSCOW—A crazy header turned Belgium’s night around.
Trailing 2-0 against Japan in the 69th minute, Belgium looked just like another heavily favored team heading out of this remarkable World Cup.
But defender Jan Vertonghen produced a goal that looked like almost nothing seen before on soccer’s biggest stage. It sparked Belgium’s 3-2 comeback win in Rostov-on-Don on Monday.
Standing at a tight angle 14 yards out, Vertonghen sent a slow, looping header high over goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima into the far corner of the Japan net.
The weird trajectory of the ball recalled one of soccer’s all-time great goals from 30 years ago: A volleyed shot by Marco van Basten to help the Netherlands win the 1988 European Championship final against the Soviet Union.
“It’s a loopy header,” Belgium Coach Roberto Martinez said. “You need that little bit of luck to get that first goal.”
The sequence of play was a corner on the right wing, an aimless header into the goalmouth, a goalkeeper’s punch and a wild clearance of the bouncing loose ball booted high into the air.
Vertonghen had been waiting at the back post for the corner to be delivered, and watched as the ball arced around the penalty area.
When Japan’s attempted clearance soared into the night sky, Vertonghen looked up and took stutter steps backward to its expected landing zone.
Vertonghen set his feet, then turned his left shoulder toward the goal and flexed his neck muscles.
Standing perfectly still, the Tottenham defender met the ball with his forehead and sent it toward goal. It might have been aimed at a teammate closer to goal, but it landed into the netting inside Kawashima’s left post, beyond his flailing hands.
Vertonghen punched his left fist low by his side and turned to run back for the kickoff with not even a smile on his lips.
His Belgian teammates still had lots of work to do. And they did it.
Marouane Fellaini scored five minutes later with a close-range header, then another substitute Nacer Chadli finished off a rapid-fire counterattack in the last minute of stoppage time.
A memorable World Cup had a marquee match and a unique goal worthy of it.