After two weeks of intense action, the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is done. With the advent of the knockout rounds, comes a unique feat for teams from the Asian Football Confederation — three out of the six nations from Asia have made it past the group stage for the first time ever. And while South Korea, Japan and Australia (who are included in the Asian confederation) beat the odds to progress, Saudi Arabia and Iran gave good accounts of themselves.
There weren’t just stray results that made Asian teams stand out. Japan bested both Germany and Spain to top Group E. Saudi Arabia recorded the biggest upset in World Cup history by defeating Argentina before frustrating Mexico in a 1-2 loss to prevent the North Americans from qualifying. South Korea held Uruguay before prevailing over Portugal in a crucial Group G clash. Iran, though crushed by England, stunned the Welsh with two match-winning goals in the death and then narrowly lost to USA. And Australia beat Tunisia and Euro 2020 semifinalists Denmark.
Notably, all of those results were achieved against higher-ranked teams. The only blemish on the Asian campaign this time would be the performance of hosts Qatar, who failed to chalk up even a single point in their group.
It is perhaps fitting that the two best World Cups for Asian teams so far have both been held in Asia. The 2002 edition continues to be the best collective Asian outing as hosts Japan and South Korea made it out of their groups, with Korea even reaching the semifinals. And following the performances in Qatar, Asian teams are on a high at a crucial time in world football, when the decision to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from the next edition is hotly debated.
The argument against the expansion has been that more Asian and African teams would qualify just to make up the numbers, leading to mismatches and lopsided scores against the European and Latin American sides. But as the Qatar World Cup has shown, Asian teams have evolved from also-rans and whipping boys to banana skins for ambitious sides and even giant-slayers who can top their groups.
Overachieving or tactical brilliance?
Attempts to draw patterns, scrutinise and field explanations as to how these low-ranked sides excelled are under way in the camps of the defeated big guns. They range from the home-crowd effect from which Arab nations benefited; to the fatigue of overworked superstars dragged into an international tournament in the middle of a domestic season; and even the fact that most Asian squads have a higher-proportion of homegrown players, allowing them to be better prepared ahead of the winter World Cup.
One common thread in every upset this time was the pluck and sense of adventure the Asian teams possessed when taking on the giants. Traditionally, minnows or underdogs tend to sit back and defend and hope to break teams on the counter. But the Asian and African teams seemed to have missed that memo this time.
Take the examples of Saudi Arabia and Japan’s wins over Argentina and Germany. The Saudi defenders executed the offside trap to perfection and played a high defensive line that the Argentines were caught offside seven times in just the first half — the South Americans had only six offside calls against them in their entire 2018 campaign. “I told Messi he wouldn’t win,” Saudi Arabian defender Ali Albulayhi proudly declared, according to Spanish paper Marca.
Meanwhile, Japan pressed Germany so hard that the merchants of gegenpressing turned error-prone and wasteful in front of the goal. It also helped the Japanese that eight of their squad members ply their trade in Germany, including both goalscorers in the game — Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano.
When the chips were down, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea rose to the occasion to script iconic comeback victories, putting paid to the notion that Asian teams could be walked all over. All four of the biggest wins by Asian sides in Qatar were achieved after going 0-1 down. The coaches constantly played to their opponents’ weakness, punishing them for their sloppiness and wasted opportunities.
Japan and South Korea — the flag-bearers
Japan and South Korea continue to be the flag-bearers of the Asian contingent. Korea has made it to each of the last 10 World Cups and apart from their dream run in 2002, the nation infamously dumped world champions Germany out of the 2018 World Cup with a sensational final group stage win.
Though the Asian teams didn’t go far in 2018, it was some respite from the disappointment of 2014, when none of the Asian teams could conjure even a single win for the first time since 1990.
Japan, too, edged out Poland and Senegal to advance in 2018, and gave eventual bronze-medallists Belgium the shock of their lives by taking a 2-0 lead in the Round of 16 clash. In turn, it was the Belgians who struck back on the counter as Nacer Chadli’s goal in stoppage time broke Japanese hearts in a 3-2 defeat.
Japanese model — a lesson for India?
The open secret of Japan’s rise has been the country’s ground-up approach to developing football over the last 30 years. The country has over 60 professionally run football clubs that covers over 80% of its prefectures, according to a tweet by a journalist who covers Japanese football.
The J-League, created in 1992, is one of the most successful leagues in Asia for how it has transformed the national team, thanks to the efforts of community-driven local teams. When the country played in the 2002 World Cup, only four members of the squad were playing abroad. Now, only seven from the squad play in Japan as players development attracted the attention of the European leagues.
The league’s long-term planning has led to the moulding of this world-class side, earning it global recognition as one of the most efficient and effective models of football development. Every detail is guided by the ‘2030 Football Vision’ that includes a Project DNA that helps clubs nurture top players and coaches. As the Japanese system goes from strength to strength, there is perhaps much for other Asian nations to take note of.
Bring on the expanded World Cup
The South America-Europe duopoly is likely to continue as far as winning the World Cup is concerned, but the Asian powerhouses are proving to be no pushovers in the global arena. “We are reaching the global standard and our maximum capacity from Asian football,” said the otherwise humble Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu after the win over Germany. An open threat to the countries that field squads with market values upward of a billion dollars.
At the 2026 World Cup, Asian teams will have eight slots, plus a one-third chance of a ninth, depending on intercontinental play-offs. Four years from now, these teams could once again prove why they are crucial – and consequential — participants in the expanded World Cup.