This year’s World Cup in Qatar has been one filled with upsets and Hollywood-like underdog stories. One of the prevailing narratives of the tournament was the success of the Asian nations, with Japan, South Korea and Australia all unexpectedly progressing to the round of 16. Their never-say-die attitude and grit was a breath of fresh air – and their success will undoubtedly help grow the game of football in the Asian region.
Read on as we take a look at each of the aforementioned nations’ World Cup campaigns in the Middle East.
Every time you watch Japan play, you can see that they are an incredibly disciplined and well-drilled team. The 2022 World Cup was no exception, with the Hajime Moriyasu-managed playing a brand of unselfish football that helped breed success. You have to look no further than their performances in the group stage, with the Blue Samurais defying the football betting odds to upset European heavyweights Spain and Germany 2-1 respectively en route to topping their group.
That set up a clash with 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia, who also were entering in strong form. Japan got off to a flyer, peppering the Croatian defence with intricate passing and perfectly-timed runs into the box. Although they couldn’t manage to register a goal on the scoresheet in the opening half hour – it was looking ominous for their European opponents.
The Japanese’s unrelenting attacking raids finally paid off just before half-time, with Daizen Maeda finishing off a beautiful piece of play that began with a superb cross from Ritsu Dean. After taking in a deserved lead into the break, Japan once again played with intent to open the second half. Just when it appeared the Blue Samurais were on the verge of scoring a second, Croatia managed to jag a goal against the run of play courtesy of a fantastic header from Ivan Perisic.
The scores would remain deadlocked through 90 minutes and a further 30 minutes of extra time, ensuring the game would be decided at the spot. It was a nightmare for Japan, who managed to convert just one penalty. Croatia would win the penalties 3-1, ensuring the Vatreni progress to the final eight for the second consecutive World Cup. For Japan, it’s another chance of securing a quarter-final berth gone begging.
Tipped to finish bottom of their group, the Socceroos showed that national pride and squad unity can take you a long way at a World Cup. After being thumped in their opening group game 4-1 at the hands of defending champions France, Australian media were calling for manager Graham Arnold to be sacked upon their return from Qatar. However, to Arnold’s credit, he went back to the drawing board and helped guide the world’s 38th ranked side to their equal best finish at a World Cup.
They would defeat Tunisia 1-0 in their second group game, ensuring all they needed was a draw with Denmark to progress to the round of 16. That’s easier said than done however, with the Danes a top ten side in the world who reached the semi-final of the Euros last year. The Aussies delivered and then some, defeating Christian Eriksen and company 1-0 thanks to a great finish from Socceroos winger Matthew Leckie in the 60th minute.
As a result, Australia reached the knockout stages of a World Cup for just the second time in the nation’s history – and the first since 2006. Waiting for them in the round of 16 was Argentina, one of the greatest footballing nations the sport has ever seen. It was clear from the outset of their match-up, however, that Australia refused to go down without the fight. After being the better side for much of the opening 30 minutes, Argentina kicked into gear and all-time great Lionel Messi made Arnold’s men pay the ultimate price for a slight lapse in judgment with a prototypical left-footed Messi finish in the 35th minute to give his side the ascendency.
A blunder at the back from Socceroos keeper Mat Ryan in the opening 20 minutes of the second half resulted in a second Argentina goal – and it appeared as though that would spell the end for the men in green and gold. However, when Craig Goodwin’s strike ricocheted off Enzo Fernandez resulting in an own-goal with 14 minutes in regular time still to play – hope remained. It was clear from that point on that the momentum had shifted – and Australia nearly capitalised with two near goals to Aziz Behich in the 83rd minute and to Garang Kuol in the final minute of stoppage time.
Both attempts were unable to find the back of the net, ending the Socceroos’ admirable World Cup campaign in the process.
Another surprise packet at this year’s World Cup was South Korea, who similarly to Australia, were expected to finish bottom of their group. However, this isn’t your ordinary World Cup, with the Taeguek Warrios reaching the round of 16 for the first time since 2010 in dramatic fashion. The Paulo Bento-managed outfit drew their first game with Uruguay 0-0, before losing to Ghana 3-2 in their following fixture.
That meant they needed to beat the previously unbeaten Portugal in their final group game to progress. After going down early to the Selecao das Quinas, it looked as though any chance of South Korea moving on was lost. Needing two goals to win, it was Kim Young-gwon’s effort in the 27th minute and Hwang Hee-chan’s goal in stoppage time that secured their side the victory and booked their spot in the final 16.
South Korea’s heroics would end there however, as they were dominated 4-1 in their round of 16 clash against pre-tournament favourites Brazil.