South Korea brimming with confidence
Aside from being Asia’s representatives at the 2010 World Cup, Australia, Japan and North Korea have something else in common: all have been beaten recently by the continent’s form team South Korea.
South Korea, preparing for its eighth appearance on the global stage, is full of confidence after booking a place in South Africa without losing any of its 14 qualification matches.
After four consecutive, impressive friendly wins in recent months over Ivory Coast, Ecuador and twice against Japan, the 2002 semifinalists have emerged as Asia’s best bet to have a team in the World Cup’s second round.
English Premier League stars Park Ji-sung of Manchester United and Bolton’s Lee Chung-yong are in good form along with Monaco striker Park Chu-young and Glasgow Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yong, leaving former Tottenham defender Lee Young-pyo optimistic about the team’s chances in South Africa.
"Compared to the past we are physically and mentally stronger," said Lee. "We are a team that is always improving."
South Korea has the most favourable draw of the Asian teams. Argentina will be group favourites, but the Koreans will fancy their chances of progressing at the expense of Nigeria and Greece.
Monday’s 2-0 victory over Japan was Korea’s second win at the home of its bitter rival in less than four months and a more comprehensive victory than the 3-1 triumph in February.
Admiration from rivals
It left Japan’s players and fans stunned and full of admiration for its red-shirted neighbours.
"We couldn’t do what we set out to do and I feel ashamed of ourselves. Man per man, we were outplayed, myself included," Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda said.
"There was a definite gap in the individual quality, whether it’s winning headers or sheer physical strength. It’s not a huge gap, but it’s still a gap that will be difficult to close."
In six home games in 2010, Japan has only managed to defeat Hong Kong and Bahrain.
In five other matches, two were goalless draws against China and Venezuela and as well as the two Korean losses, Serbia triumphed 3-0 in April. Just one goal from those five games, which came from the penalty spot, has fans despondent and the Japan football bosses worried.
"I only saw brief glimpses of a desire not to be beaten," said Japan Football Association president Motoaki Inukai. "You can’t win games like that. It’s a real disappointment. That sort of a performance won’t get anyone excited about the World Cup."
Fans are concerned too. Following the Korean defeat, a poll run by Sports Nippon newspaper resulted in 95.2 per cent of the respondents claiming that Japan would fail to progress past the group stage. Coach Okada has repeatedly and publicly stated that his target is a place in the semifinals.
Australia’s form is not as dire but the Socceroos failed to impress in a come-from-behind 2-1 win at home to lowly New Zealand this week.
Despite fielding English Premier League stars such as Tim Cahill and Vince Grella, Australia was second best for much of the match. With the team in a tough group in South Africa along with Germany, Ghana and Serbia, the mood at home is not as buoyant as in 2006 when the team left for Germany amid a sea of optimism.
Back then, Guus Hiddink led the team to the last 16 with some exciting football before being knocked out with a late penalty against eventual champion Italy.
This time, coached by his former assistant and fellow Dutchman Pim Verbeek, the Socceroos qualified in unspectacular fashion.
Australia’s 28-man squad has more goalkeepers than strikers, illustrating the more pragmatic and defence-minded approach under Verbeek.
"A lot of people have already written us off and people continue writing us off," goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer said. "That’s something you get used to … over the years we’ve had to deal with that.
"We’re going to go there with the expectation probably not as high as people thought it would be ... we’re happy to go there and be able to hopefully show people that they were wrong."
With North Korea drawn in the toughest group of all, facing Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal in Group G, their neighbours to the south may have the longest stay in South Africa of all the Asian teams.