FIFA World Cup 2018: Led by Japan, Asian teams raise their game
Written by: Srinivasan
Although the Blue Samurai were the only ones to have qualified for the knockout stages it was a good showing on the whole for the continent.
Asia has always been a continent where the Beautiful Game sees immense popularity. It is indeed a market for every major European club to tap into their commercial plans. With more money being poured into the lucrative Chinese Super League, which has attracted some of the world's top talent to its shores and with each Asian country looking to follow the European model of functioning and playing, the continent is indeed taking its football very seriously.
However, Asia's record at the World Cup finals is needless to say poor. The last Asian team to progress beyond the quarterfinals was South Korea in 2002, albeit under controversial circumstances. Till then, it was the record of the 1966 North Korean team that stood as the benchmark for all Asian sides. That team, which upset the odds to beat Italy 1-0 and gave Eusebio's Portugal nightmares in the 1966 World Cup, showed that Asia was capable of competing.
The continent has always been represented by the usual suspects like Saudi Arabia, Japan and Iran at the tournament. With the recent addition of Australia to the AFC, it adds more weight to the Asian contingent at the World Cup.
In Russia this year, each Asian team was part of a group that nearly saw every neutral writing them off and claiming that these teams were there for the taking. What transpired is that each Asian team in this World Cup has put up such an impressive showing, that you can't help but be impressed.
Carlos Queiroz's highly organized Iran stole a late win over Morocco in their opener, made Spain sweat for their win and nearly stole Portugal's thunder in their final group game, where in all fairness the Iranians were the better team.
Despite Saudi Arabia's opening day humiliation at the hands of Russia, the team rallied wonderfully well to put Uruguay to the sword and were sublime in their dead rubber game against Egypt. What was impressive about this win was the fact that the Saudis played a patient passing game, which was centred around smart movement and quick transitions. The winning Saudi goal in the dying embers of their game against Egypt exhibited this.
Despite Australia's scepticism over former Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk's appointment, the team were organized, compact and showed huge heart in all their performances. Despite another first round exit, it is indeed a huge step forward for this team, who only a few months ago, were struggling with an identity crisis since Ange Postecoglou moved on from the national side.
The South Koreans were expected to be fodder in a group that had reigning world champions Germany, Sweden and an enterprising Mexico side. They lost out narrowly to Sweden in their opener and were beaten yet again by Mexico. With nothing to lose, they went into their final game against Germany with no expectations. With their tournament hanging in the balance in this game, the Germans were expected to win comfortably, especially given their late heroics against Sweden. The last time these nations met was in the semi-finals of the 2002 edition, where a Michael Ballack goal separated the teams.
In what was a virtual semi-final for Germany, we saw the South Koreans put on an exhibition in organization, counter-attacking football, that opened a can of worms, which was basically the German team in Russia this year. The Northeast Asians' shock 2-0 victory ensured that the champions finished bottom of their group and also exacted revenge for their 2002 defeat.
Japan, being the only Asian representatives in the Round of 16 in Russia, have almost always made it to this stage. This time, they did so at the expense of Senegal, who were knocked out on fair play points. The Japanese were also a team that came to Russia with issues. Then coach Vahid Halilhodzic was offloaded in April 2018, after he allegedly ruffled some feathers inside the Japanese dressing room with his no-nonsense approach. 1996 Atlanta Olympics manager Akira Nishino was brought in to steady the ship and steady it he did. The Blue Samurai showed incredible resilience and fight to pull off a win against Colombia and draw against Senegal in a match that was incredible to watch for the neutrals.
The Asian performance at the World Cup is a lesson for every country on the continent, especially India, that the tournament is not only for Europe and South America. Given the right attitude, a combined effort from federation, team and fans and a clear vision to see your team walk out for a World Cup game and you never know, if one day we could see an Asian team compete in the final, or as an optimist would believe, maybe even win the World Cup.
Published: Mon Jul 09, 2018 05:29 PM IST