“Football is simple, but it is difficult to play simply,” Johan Cruyff once opined about the treacherous nature of the beautiful game, as Asian nations have found out repeatedly in various editions of the FIFA World Cup. Football has been a staple of the Asian sporting spectacle since the late nineteenth century, but talk about the greatest footballing teams and one would stutter to pinpoint an Asian nation or club amongst them.
Football may be an integral part of sporting culture across the Asian continent, but barely have nations left their imprints on the biggest stage with the entire world watching. Back in 1994, when Saudi Arabia made it all the way to the Round of 16 before bowing out to Sweden, Saaed Al-Owairian’s spectacular individual goal against Belgium was supposed to inspire an entire generation of Asian footballers, but members of the Asian Football Confederation did not really announce themselves until Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
It was in this edition when the Taegeuk Warriors from Seoul finally shattered the glass ceiling, their semi-final appearance brokering a legacy-defining World Cup for Asian participants, the only instance till date when a team outside Europe and Latin America have made it to the last four since the United States’ third-place finish in 1930. What was supposed to kick-start a footballing revolution at the grassroots level across the continent only turned into a cinematic piece of sporting history — while Iran and Saudi Arabia struggled due to the burgeoning political crisis in Middle East, the stars from South Korea and Japan were cherry-picked by European clubs.
Football was still played with equal fervour in the various nooks and crannies, but somewhere the Asian countries were always mentioned as a footnote to the bigger and better teams. It all went downhill in 2014 in Brazil as the AFC became the only football federation to finish without a win or a single participant in the knockout stages. It was a moment of jubilation when five Asian teams — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Australia — qualified in 2018, but not many were optimistic about any of the team’s chances.
Yes, the Socceroos are an unpredictable bunch; yes, Iran did not lose a competitive fixture since their last World Cup appearance; yes, South Korea are experienced campaigners when it comes to World Cups; yes, Saudi Arabia were drawn in a group which could throw up unexpected results; yes, Japan have a number of underrated but talented players in the prime of their careers among their ranks. But heading into the World Cup, just like Iran and South Korea were the favourites to finish last in their respective groups, nobody gave a passing thought to Japan in the Group of Death. Cute moments and zealous fans aside, Asian nations have often been blown away by the sheer magnitude of World Cup appearances.
Russia’s decimation of Saudi Arabia as the lowest-ranked participants scored for fun in the opening fixture at Moscow further strengthened the hypothesis that it will be yet another difficult World Cup for the Asian countries. And then by a stroke of luck and due to a pulsating thriller of a game between Spain and Portugal, the Group B leaders after the first set of matches turned out to be Iran.
That same Iran, whose first-choice goalkeeper once had to serve pizzas and wash cars to achieve his dream of playing football. That same Iran who registered just two shots on target in the entire span of ninety minutes against Morocco, but frustrated the immensely talented African nation beyond expectations with their low block and ‘safety first’ strategy — it may not have made for an entertaining watch, but Iran’s tactics were effective and then some more. Nobody still expects them to beat the ever-stylish Spain or the Ronaldo-led Portugal, but the Iranians have already defied expectations — those of their fans and the world.
Iran’s win due to Aziz Bouhaddouz’s catastrophic stoppage time error was quickly cast aside by Australia and South Korea’s losses the following day. The Oceanic side was impressive against Euro 2016 runners-up but did not have anything to show for it, while South Korea meekly folded to the Swedish side in a game where VAR was deemed the culprit for the final scoreline. By the time Japan sprung to action under sunny skies in St Petersburg, the world had already made up its mind about who amongst the Senegalese and the Colombians is likely to top the uber-competitive Group H, focussing on James Rodriguez’s calf injury and its repercussions on Colombia’s tournament chances. The Latin American nation had effortlessly swatted away Japan’s challenge back in 2014 and was the clear favourites for the opening fixture.
What followed over the next ninety minutes was an emphatic show of resilience and grit, backed by technical prowess in a team determined to leave their mark in the competition. An Asian side had never beaten a nation from South America in seventeen previous FIFA World Cup meetings, but Akira Nishino’s boys had quality in their feet and fortune under their wings. Colombia were in shambles from a defensive perspective right from the start, but that does not take away anything from Japan’s performance.
Spurs’ celebrated youngster Davinson Sanchez had a nightmarish World Cup debut, with his namesake Carlos Sanchez paying the ultimate price for the centre-half’s rookie mistake. The ten-men Tricolors were still an exciting bunch in possession especially with Rodriguez’s replacement, Jose Quintero, potentially resurrecting his club career due to a brilliant display. But Japan clipped the wings of Colombian resurgence just when Falcao and Co were beginning to assert themselves in the match.
A strong second-half display with Gaku Shibasaki anchoring their midfield and orchestrating play allowed Japan to control the proceedings, but it was their flawless defensive performance which underlined the historic win. Japan did not just win, they impressed with their intricate passing and resolute rearguard action.
Picture this — Yuya Osako, the Japanese centre-forward, minutes after scoring the potential match-winning goal with a leaping header, pulled off a breathtaking block in his own penalty area to deny James Rodriguez an equaliser. It is this drive and commitment to taste victory, strung together with oodles of talent which impelled Japan to victory.
“Superman is only in the cartoons. Nobody is Superman. What can happen once in a while, is that a group of people when they are united, they can create super stories,” Carlos Queiroz had quipped after Iran’s serendipitous win over Morocco. It has been less than a week since the World Cup fever started and Asian nations can still disappoint, they could all get eliminated before the knockout stages commence, but nobody can say anymore that the euphoria of Asian nations and their supporters at the World Cup is gratuitous by any means.
Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 14:33 PM