Asia: The sleeping continent of global football—with just one dream run so far

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On Wednesday (November 23), Japan caused a massive upset, defeating Germany 2-1. This was not the first major upset caused by an Asian team in this World Cup. On Tuesday, Argentina were stunned 1-2 by a resolute Saudi Arabia. As South Korea play Uruguay on November 24 evening, we look back at the performance of Asian teams in the FIFA World Cup, and the challenges they have faced over the years.

Asian teams in the World Cup

Historically, the FIFA World Cup has been a duopoly of Europe and South America. No team from outside these two continents has ever won the biggest prize in football. In fact, in the 21 World Cups completed so far, there have been only two semi-finalists not from Europe or South America: the United States back in the inaugural World Cup of 1930 which had only 13 teams, and the battling South Koreans in their home World Cup in 2002.

In fact, Asian teams have fared particularly poorly when compared to other continents from outside the big two. While no African nation has ever made the semi-final, since 1986, every World Cup has had at least one African team make it out of their respective group (with the exception of 2018).

Similarly, every edition of the World Cup since 1986 has had at least one team from North America to make it to the Round of 16.

In contrast, no team from Asia managed to get out of the group stages in five out of nine World cups held in the same period. Simply put, Asian teams have often underperformed even the most modest expectations put on them.

Asian players at the biggest stage

Asia has produced far fewer players who have consistently played in the best football leagues and teams in Europe. Just in terms of name-recognition, Asian players have fared much worse than their African or North American counterparts.

This is not to say that Asia has not produced top players. Looking solely at the last couple of decades, there have been some fantastic Asian footballers. Consider:

* Ji-Sung Park of South Korea was one of the most underrated players in Alex Ferguson’s legendary Manchester United of the mid- to late 2000s.

* Shunsuke Nakamura of Japan became a cult figure in Glasgow, known for his supreme technical ability and dead-ball skills in the 2000s.

* Ali Daei of Iran was a goal scoring machine for his country, being the first player to ever net a century of international goals.

* Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan was a phenomenon in Serie A before shockingly retiring at age 29 in 2006 due to growing disillusion with the commercial side of football.

* Today, Son Heung-Min of South Korea is one of the best forwards in the Premier League with a lethal combination of hard work, pace, and skill.

But given the sheer size of the talent pool Asia has as the largest, most populous continent, Asian football has not reached the heights it could, or should, have.

The 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup

This was the first FIFA World Cup held on Asian soil. Till date, it has been the most successful World Cup for Asian teams. Both hosts Japan and South Korea made it out of the group, and South Korea went on an improbable run to the semi-finals. This remains the best performance by any team outside of Europe and South America in a World Cup.

Japan qualified undefeated from a group consisting of Belgium, Russia, and Tunisia. They fought to a close draw against a talented Belgium side, and comfortably won against Russia and Tunisia. In the round of 16, they faced off against an underrated Turkish side.

Unfortunately, they conceded an early goal in the 12th minute and were held off by a valiant Turkey defence till the end. It was a heartbreaking loss for the team in front of their own fans.

They reached the Round of 16 twice again, in 2010 and 2018, but failed to progress any further on both times.

The South Korea story in the 2002 World Cup is a part of the folklore of the tournament.

They had a squad with only two players who had played outside Korea or Japan: Seol Ki-Hyeon who played in Belgium’s Anderlecht, and Ahn Jung-hwan who played for Perugia in Italy. There were no footballing superstars in this team. However, former Dutch player and coach of South Korea, Guus Hiddink moulded the team to becoming the star itself.

The Koreans were rock solid in defence, conceding one goal in the group stages and three overall, over the course of six games (not counting the third place playoff). In the group stages, they defeated Poland, drew to the United States, and stunned Portugal in a must-win game for both teams.

While they did not score a lot of goals, they had a knack of getting timely strikes, none more timely than the famous extra-time strike by Ahn Jung-Hwan against a shocked Italian team in the Round of 16.

The quarter finals produced a performance typical of the team, despite having very little possession, they held fort against a supremely talented Spanish side, taking the game to penalties. They eventually won the penalty shoot-out 5-3, becoming the first Asian team to make it to that stage.

The dream run would eventually end in the semi finals where a Michael Ballack goal for Germany would undo 75 minutes of resilient defence by the Koreans. They would go on to lose the third place play-off against Turkey, and to end fourth in the tournament.

Nonetheless, this was a commendable run, something neither they nor any other Asian team has been able to replicate since.

Why no repeats of the 2002 performance?

2002 remains the peak of Asian football at the world stage. Teams since then have neither had consistency nor have they reached the heights of that South Korean team. A few different factors can be seen to be behind this.

Firstly, the allocation of World Cup spots happens on the basis of the Confederation. Each Confederation has a certain number of guaranteed slots and a few slots which they have inter-continental games for.

The allocation of World Cup slots is a major political issue in world football, with Europe getting the lion’s share. Currently, Asia has between four and five slots for 45 teams participating in the qualifying rounds. In comparison, Europe gets 13 slots for 55 qualifying teams.

The argument in favour of such a system is that Europe has better teams and must get more slots to ensure the standard of football in the World Cup. However, this system also ensures that Asian teams never end up playing much against better competition and hence do not grow as much as they can.

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To address this issue, the World Cup in 2026 will have 40 teams, increasing the number of teams that can qualify from outside Europe.

Second, the commercialisation and subsequent professionalisation of football has created larger gaps between the quality of teams in Europe and the rest of the world. Even the best players from South America play in Europe. Infrastructure and player development is better in the top European leagues.

The Asian leagues and player development infrastructure are not of that quality, and the player scouting networks of European clubs do not have a large enough footprint in the continent. This disadvantages Asian players over their counterparts from other continents.

Qatar 2022 has started very well for Asian teams. They look confident and competent at the biggest stage. It remains to be seen if the second ever World Cup in Asia turns out to be as successful for Asian football as the first.