Aashish Gadhvi reviews the rollercoaster World Cup campaigns from the Asian sides.
Before the World Cup started I pictured myself sitting in front of a typewriter like Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote penning conspiracy theories and plans of deception at how South Korea were knocked out of the group stage yet again by the narrowest of margins from a bad referee decision. Thankfully my four year long nightmare of South Korea v Switzerland from 2006, a linesman’s flag has been put to rest with an incredible World Cup campaign from not just one, but two Asian sides. South Africa has been one heck of a ride for the Asian teams, and here I am to write a jolly article full of happiness and mutual high fiving. A little bit like Dick Van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder…
Let’s start with our favourite team south of the 38th parallel. South Korea came into the group as dark horses, but parallels with the 2006 group were soon drawn as statements of there being no clear best team between them. Greece and Nigeria soon emerged. It all smelled of four years ago to me. But no one could have wished for a better opening match. South Korea put in an almost identical performance to the defeat of Poland in the opening match of World Cup 2002, trouncing a very poor Greece side. Similarly to the Poland match they won 2-0 and should have gone on to score more. More importantly, captain Park Ji-sung threw very humble pie down the throats of many a football ‘expert’ who claim he has no skill by winning the ball off the defensive errors, running clear of two defenders then gently chipping the goal keeper with the coolest of finishes. The waving arm celebration and Rick Astley haircut were soon forgiven. Their second game however saw us all come crashing back down to earth with a 4-1 trouncing at the hands of an incredible Argentina team, and with Greece beating Nigeria, the group went down to the last game with South Korea needing to better whatever the Greeks did. What a night that was! South Korea went a goal down and as the match stayed 0-0 between Greece and Argentina we all feared yet another group stage exit. But this was a different pack of Taeguk Warriors to those we saw huff and puff against Switzerland in 2006. They pulled a goal back with a lucky deflection off Lee Jung-soo and then amazingly took the lead with Park Chu-young’s direct free kick. They gave away a sloppy penalty which brought the game back to 2-2 and minutes before dodged the biggest bullet of the World Cup when Yakubu hit the shot from inside the 6 yard box, bringing back memories of Christian Vieri in 2002. The full time whistle blew and as news of Argentina’s 2-0 win over Greece filtered through, the dream became sweet sweet reality. South Korea had qualified for the Last 16 outside of their country for the first time in World Cup history.
Their Northern cousins however weren’t so lucky. North Korea threatened to steal the limelight of the World Cup once more by putting in a blood, sweat and tears (literally) performance against the mighty Brazil, going down 2-1 loosers but winning the hearts of many a football fan in the process. The sight of Jong Tae-se crying his eyes out like someone who had lost his winning lottery ticket also brought about the admiration of fans whose footballers seemed to lack any passion (France, Italy, England). The only problem is that someone forgot to tell them they had two more matches coming up. Portugal wiped the floor with then 7-0 and even the Ivory Coast managed to stick three goals past them with no return. To make matters worse, some bright spark comrade decided to show the Portugal match live in Pyongyang. Needless to say we are waiting with baited breath to hear about the well-being of the players now they have returned to Pyongyang. If they didn’t believe in God before, they better start believing now.
Although this is a blog about Korean football, I was compelled to also write about another Asian team, and no I’m not talking about the ‘Asian’ Australians. Japan did the ultimate Jekyll & Hyde impersonation by going from an impending train wreck to becoming the continent’s premiere football team. This was largely thanks in part to a surprise 1-0 victory over Cameroon, but an unlucky 1-0 defeat to Holland saw the same nerves creep into their final group game as South Korea’s. And again, what a night that was! Japan only needed a draw against Denmark to go through, but instead of playing to the team’s largely defensive style, Japan proceeded to dismantle Denmark 3-1, arguably the greatest performance in Japanese football history. All this was largely down to the brilliance of one man. Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the new star of Asian football: Emperor Keisuke Honda. Honda went from fairly average midfielder playing for CSKA Moscow in Russia to the continent’s premier footballer. His goal against Cameroon saw them to their first ever overseas victory. But his performance against Denmark, in which he scored a long rage free kick (likened by the commentators to Cristiano Ronaldo) and wonderful skill to lose the defender and cut the ball back to Shinji Okazaki for the final goal was just breathtaking. So breathtaking in fact, that I would go so far as to say I have never seen an Asian player perform with as much confidence as that during a World Cup finals. Japan’s two wins saw them breeze through to the Last 16, again the first time they had achieved such a feet outside of their own country.
The Last 16 for both teams provided drama. South Korea took on the much-fancied Uruguay, but again went a goal down with a sloppy goalkeeping moment for Jung Sung-ryong, who allowed Luis Suarez to snatch a goal. But again, this group displayed a different fight in them from previous teams. As Mark Twain once said ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog’, and Korea came out in the second half like a rabies-infested Rottweiler that sniffed blood. They performed their best football of the tournament in that second half and deservedly went level with Lee Chung-yong capitalising on a goalkeeping error and heading the ball into the net, the first goal that Uruguay had conceded in the World Cup. But unfortunately the lack of edge up front showed as Korea failed to capitalise on their numerous chances. They bossed the second half, but had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat when Luis Suarez curled in a brilliant goal from just inside the box that went in off the post. The dog with the biggest fight had been tamed. Even after the goal Korea had another sitting chance, but Lee Dong-gook scuffed the shot and the man nicknamed ‘The Lion King’ looked more like the pussy cat that Middlesbrough fans said he was. Nevertheless the players gave their all and one simply could not ask for more from them. It was a proud night to be a South Korea fan. As the final Asian torch was passed to Japan, Paraguay looked to put the flame out. Very little happened in the entire match, but again the bitter pill was dealt to an Asian side as Japan went out on penalties. They had took the fight further than South Korea and their organised approach made them a force that the whole world had taken note of.
Now the dust has settled on their African adventures, where do these victories stand in comparison with previous achievements? For Japan, there is no question that this is their greatest ever achievement. Reaching the Last 16 in 2002 was a memorable moment but reaching it outside of Japan and doing it with a thumping victory over a European team and beating an African team on their own continent is far more difficult. South Korea however is a little bit more tricky to define. The legendary striker Hwang Sun-hong said that this team was better than 2002 and their achievement was a greater one. Simply put, it is a great achievement, but not a greater one. The main reason for this is the defence. Korea scored 5 goals in their first 3 games in 2010. This is 1 more than they scored in their 2002 and 2 more than in 2006. The main stat however is their defence. They conceded 6 goals in the group, which is 5 more than in 2002 and 2 more than in 2006. Now this stat may be slightly deceiving as 4 of those 2010 goals were against an unstoppable Argentina team who can take anyone apart in their day, but the 2 goals against Nigeria were just horrible defensive errors. This is not to mention the first Uruguay which was a goalkeeping error, but there was not much one can do about the second Uruguay goal. But perhaps the fact that this team didn’t have a great defence and didn’t have Hong Myong-bo means that this may even be a bigger achievement than 2002, also not to mention the extra help they had from referees in that tournament. My opinion is that this is slightly less of an achievement, but still that margin very small.
There is no doubt that this tournament has made history for two of Asia’s powerhouse teams and this cannot be underestimated. Both teams had shortcomings and oddly enough contrasting shortcomings. South Korea did not defend well and were not decisive enough in taking chances. Japan did defend well but did not create many chances. Both teams oddly relied on set pieces, something which Asian teams in the past haven’t been good at. But both teams left with their heads held high and gave a final performance with fire in their bellies that previously Asian teams had never dared to play with. The big test now will be to make sure Asian football does not fall back into the days of being the whipping boys. But I hope that their performances in this tournament will set a precedent for the future and that the future generation will believe that those days are now gone. They may not be the most naturally gifted players in the world, but the home of football with a fighting spirit is Asia. France, Italy and England can sit by and take notes.