Anatomy of a Dramatic Fifth-Set Collapse: Japan’s Vaunted Women’s Volleyball Team Nearly Fall to Upstart Thailand

The Japan’s Women’s Volleyball Team has legendary status, medaling in five straight Olympics from 1964 to 1984, excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. They fell out of contention over the 1990s and the “oughts”, but regained form taking bronze at the 2012 London Games.

But there the Japanese team was on the evening of May 18, losing significantly in the fifth and final set to Thailand, a nation that has never sent a volleyball team to the Olympics. This was the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Women’s Rio 2016 Qualifier, and it was being played in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo, the site of Japan’s gold-medal winning performance in the Olympic debut of women’s volleyball.

Japan vs thailand volleyball qualifier
Erika Araki (center) spikes the ball during Japan’s 3-2 Olympic qualifying win

Thailand was tasting it, they could see it – victory. They were up 10-5 in the fifth and final set. (Start watching the above video at the 2 hour 54-minute mark.) Japan served, starting an incredible rally. Thailand received a jump serve, it was returned to the setter waiting at the front of the net, who laid up an easy hit for a Thai striker who smashed it across court, right at a Japanese player who sent the ball out of bounds. The Thai players start slapping high fives. But a Japanese had lunged out of bounds to save the ball and send it across the net to the surprised Thais. Another Thai spike. This time, an amazing one-handed save by the Japanese. The announcer is incredulous. “Has it gone? It’s still in! It’s still in! I can’t believe it.” Back and forth it goes as the Thais re-group. And they have a chance, but their spike sails out. There’s a challenge, but no Japanese fingers touch the ball, and Japan climbs one point closer, 10-6.

They call it momentum. And one could sense it slipping Japan’s way.

Thailand managed to win the next two points to go up 12-6. A poor serve from Thailand made it 12-7. The announcer said, “Can Japan get some Harry Potter magic here and get a few points.” And that’s when it all started to fall apart for the Southeast Asian nation. If they win the set and the match, there’s a very real chance they would eventually qualify for their first Olympics in Rio. But they were on Japan’s home court and they were feeling the pressure.

Japan gets another point to claw closer to 12-8. It’s unclear why watching the broadcast of the match, but Thai coach, Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai, was upset, and challenged the call. The referee from Mexico, Luis Gerardo Macias, denied the challenge, leaving the Thai coach in a huff. Kiattipong calls a time out. When the time out ends and the Thai players go back onto the court, Macias calls the Thai players over to explain something. Macias raises a red card, and suddenly, the score is 12-9. You can hear Kiattipong say in surprise, “aray wa?”, which is a crude way of saying in Thai, “what the heck happened?”

Macias explaining the first penalty to Thai team captain
Macias explaining the first penalty to the Thai team captain

And that is a good question.

But life quickly goes on. Japan serves, the Thai player lets it go, and the ball falls safely inside the lines for the match’s only ace. It’s now 12-10. “Nerves must be jangling on Thailand’s side,” says the announcer. With the crowd roaring, Japan spikes to another point, and are behind by one, 12-11. Kiattipong calls another timeout. Japan serves, takes Thailand’s attack, and blocks for the tying point. It’s now tied, 12-12. Japan serves, sets up for a spike which the Thai defenders can’t handle. 13-12 Japan. That’s seven points in a row.

You can see Kiattipong prowling the sidelines in disbelief. The camera switches to Macias, who has an expression that essentially says, “I told him to shut up and he won’t shut up.” Suddenly, Macias indicates another penalty, and Japan is amazingly given another point by the referee. Except it’s match point, in a match that pretty much determines which team goes to Rio in August.

Thai Captain Pleumjit Thinkaow in tears
Thai Captain Pleumjit Thinkaow in tears at the post-match press conference

“Wow. It’s match point to Japan because of Radchatagriengkai’s continuous protest,” says the announcer.

Somehow, Thailand manages to win the next point with a dramatic block and pull to 14-13. But just as quickly, Japan receives the serve and smashes the ball across the net for victory, as the announcer says, “coming from the dead 12-6 down in the fifth.”

Japan won this amazing see-saw match 20-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 15-13. And along with The Netherlands, Italy and South Korea, Japan advanced to the Olympic Games in Rio. Thailand came so close, and the players deserve incredible respect for their play throughout the tournament. But this year, it was not to be. Thailand sill had Kazakhstan and South Korea to play, and the Prime Minister of Thailand let them know how proud he was, and advised them to focus on the next two games only. Thailand won both, but Japan did what it had to do to advance. The Japanese public blew a huge sigh of relief. The Thai public went on a flaming war against a perceived injustice.

This was an incredible match. Watch it.

Japan womens volleyball defeat Thailand
Japan after winning the 15th point in a five-setter against Thailand on May 18, 2016