At the 2010 World Cup, the percentage of Asian teams that negotiated the group stage (50%) was higher than UEFA’s survival rate (46%). A repeat would go down well this June.
Japan and South Korea were the two that progressed and they have long been the continent’s World Cup warriors. When much of the planet thinks Asian football, they think Samurai Blue and Taeguk Red. The pair has reached the latter stages twice out of the last three occasions. Making it three out of four would be impressive indeed.
Japan will be satisfied, just, with a place in the last 16 but with a team full of stars at some of Europe’s biggest clubs in the biggest leagues, an experienced coach and a stable set-up, it’s time to go further than ever before.
Group C is well-balanced and not just because the four teams hail from four different continents. Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece should not be so tough to keep coach Alberto Zaccheroni up all night but it is hard enough to ensure that the Asian champion gets into top gear early, and ready for the knockout stage. Once there, it is time to defeat a genuine giant at the World Cup for the first time.
So well are most Japanese players doing in Europe that anyone still in the J-League who appears in Brazil will automatically be linked to moves west. It has already happened to midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi and attacker Yoichiro Kakitani who can enhance their reputations even more this June.
Korea also has its fair share of European stars and the likes of Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen and Park Chu-young of Arsenal will shoulder much of the attacking burden. Korea’s is preparing for an eighth consecutive World Cup. Qualification was far from smooth but Hong Myung-bo took the reins last July and matters have improved.
This team is built on pace but much depends on the backline that almost cost a place in Brazil. An inability to defend set pieces became almost comical. Kim Young-gwon is the centre-back and the apple of Marcello Lippi’s eye at Guangzhou Evergrande. Tipped by the Italian as good enough for (the Alex Ferguson version) Manchester United and expected to head to Europe this summer. Where he goes could depend on performances against Russia, Algeria and Belgium in a group that offers possibilities for Korea.
Iran has not had the excellent preparations that its East Asian rivals take for granted but Carlos Queiroz will have his men well-organised, that is what the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss does. The team conceded just twice in the final eight games of qualification and while it didn’t score many more, that is way the team plays - sitting back and looking to hit on the counter-attack, using the pace of new hero Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Team Melli, faced with Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia, may not get through but it may get a lot closer than people think.
Nobody thinks Australia will get close to anything –the second round or any of its rivals. But the pressure is off a new coach and a new-look team. Perhaps the Socceroos can enjoy themselves and take points off Netherlands, Chile and Spain and if that means the second round is still a possibility by the time the game against the holder comes around, who knows? Injuries, suspensions and luck can all play a part and miracles can happen at the World Cup.
While miracles are always welcome, Asia would settle for a solid and respectable two out of four in the last 16.