THE 2014 World Cup so far has exceeded expectations, thanks to all the attacking football and unpredictable, heart-stopping results inundated with more than enough goals to last until the next tournament.
Of course, not everyone is happy, especially the handful of big names that have been scalped this early: defending champions Spain, hopeless non-achievers England and almost certainly “average” Portugal (the adjective courtesy of its ever-thoughtful captain, the ultra-talented Cristiano Ronaldo, who is convinced he deserves a much better team than the one that’s out to embarrass him in Brazil).
But on a more somber note that barely registers in the radar of global pundits, this World Cup is quickly turning into a disastrous campaign for Asian teams.
Australia with zero points is out of the competition, while Japan, South Korea and Iran, each with one point, have a slim chance of making it to the knockout stages.
Japan must beat group leaders Colombia and hope that the Ivory Coast lose to Greece. South Korea must top group leaders Belgium and hope Algeria bows to Russia. Iran must win against Bosnia and Herzegovina and hope that Nigeria loses to Argentina. If their opponents manage a draw, goal difference will decide which team advances. It’s complicated enough so let’s not go further.
Now, the knockout stages of the last three always had an Asian representative: WC 2002 ushered hosts Japan and South Korea, WC 2006 had Australia, while WC 2010 saw the return of Japan and South Korea. Not having an Asian team in the Round of 16 in this tournament will be seen as a step backward.
Watching the games, I thought the teams were technically sound but just lacked the mental toughness and the killer instinct to win.
Against the Ivory Coast, Japan led three-fourths of the way and had decent possession of the ball before yielding 1-2 to star-studded Elephants. In their second match, the Blue Samurai dominated Greece in nearly all departments but just couldn’t convert all that possession (68 percent) and attempts (16 shots with 11 on target) into goals.
In its 1-1 draw with Russia, South Korea slightly had more of the ball and drew first blood. In its second match, the Koreans also had slightly better possession than Algeria but completely forgot about its defense, losing 2-4.
Iran was closest to succeeding with its defensive approach. Its first game against Nigeria yielded a scoreless draw. Against Argentina, Iran had little of the ball but was dangerous on the break. Too bad Lionel Messi spoiled the party with an injury time scorcher. After 180 plus minutes of defending and counteracking, Iran has zero goals to show.
Now I don’t know if I’m the only person in this part of the world who’ll be missing the Asian teams in the knockout rounds, but the football associations of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia will need to ask tough questions why the teams flopped on the biggest stage.
Japan, for instance, has expressed its desire to win the World Cup in 2050, but at the rate everyone else is improving, the World Cup 2100 might be a more realistic target.
I wrote recently about the plan to expand the number of teams from 32 to 40 starting in the 2018 World Cup, and why Asia must have more slots than the current four. But given the lackluster performance of this edition’s Asian representatives, those opposing the plan have a pretty solid counter-argument: more teams don’t necessarily translate to more quality. And they’d say, why shake up this fine World Cup tradition of excellence?
I just hope that the surviving Asian teams – Japan, South Korea and Australia – will reply with a rebuttal of winning goals. And may luck be on their side.
P.S. Good riddance, Cristiano Ronaldo.