Asia’s Dream Run Ends As Japan And South Korea Head Home

Asia’s Dream Run Ends As Japan And South Korea Head Home

The Land of the Rising Sun,
The Land of the Morning Calm;
For Now Befallen Brethren,
Will Rise Once More In Unison

The World Cup, a rare medley of global togetherness, in its most magical, grandiose and diverse form sees Asia bow out, albeit with pride, in the round of 16. In only the second ever FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the Asian continent, Japan and South Korea have represented the eastern part of the globe with great aplomb.

Japan, featuring in their 7th World Cup, put on quite a show in Qatar. The Samurai Blues, befitting of their moniker, created a true desert storm in the Middle East by taking the scalps of European powerhouses Germany and Spain, even shockingly knocking the former out of the tournament in the process.

As the world looked shaken and took stock of this young team, 16 of whom are playing in their first ever World Cup, Japan had another chance to create history. But alas, despite clinical finishing throughout the tournament, it was the dreaded kicks of fate from 12 yards that undid them in the end.

In a match that couldn’t be settled within 90 minutes, even an additional 30 in extra time couldn’t separate Japan and Croatia in their round of 16 battle. The game saw Japan start off with purpose and vigor, perfectly embodying their spirit throughout the tournament. The Croats, despite possessing a generational midfield trio of Modric, Kovacic, and Brozovic who can boss the middle of the park against any team in the world, looked rattled by Japanese endeavor.

Croatia was slow and laborious in the first half, and Japan capitalized. As the Asian giants grew into the game, striker Maeda, who was previously goalless this tournament, pounced on a low cross to give them the lead just before half time. However, Croatia pushed back after the break with more urgency. A great cross from Lovren saw Perisic score a bullet header from almost the edge of the box to restore parity.

Both sides took caution from that point on, as neither team wanted to suffer the heartbreak of a last-minute winner against them. This meant that Al Janoub stadium would witness this tournament’s first penalty shootout.

Eventually, experience and calmness under pressure turned out to be the deciding factor, characteristics of which 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia have aplenty. On a night when penalty shootout hero Livakovic remarkably saved 3 penalties to send Croatia to the quarterfinals, Japan can still take great pride despite their magical fortnight coming to a close in tears.

Before the tournament began, Japan desperately wanted to banish the ghosts of 2018, when they lost in the dying embers to Belgium at the same stage despite leading the game 2-0 until the 69th minute. A win against Croatia might have taken them one step beyond to go further than they ever have, but the sun eventually has to set even in the ‘Land of The Rising Sun’.

However, despite the result, their valiant fight throughout the tournament will have already exorcised old demons. The Samurai Blues can go back home with their heads held high, knowing they did not go down without a fight.

Meanwhile, their neighbours South Korea had a chance to create some history of their own. The Taeguk Warriors had miraculously made it through their group in exhilarating circumstances, having beaten Portugal in their final group game to get through on goal difference. But the joy of that feat was short-lived, with Brazil on the horizon in the round of 16.

As they faced the 5 time World Cup winners at the Stadium 974 on Monday, it proved to be one step too far for the Asian side. The Selecao produced a footballing clinic, as they romped to a 4-0 lead in the first half, leaving Korea befuddled at what they had encountered.

Korea pulled a goal back with Seung-ho scoring a screamer, but it was never going to be enough as the game had already gone beyond their clutches by then. When Brazil are in such form and finesse, no side in the world can stop them, let alone South Korea.

The loss might sting, but it shouldn’t take away from what has been an excellent progression for the Asian powerhouse. From taking consolation in knocking the mighty Germany out from the group stages in 2018 despite not making it themselves, to going one step better this time by actually reaching the knockouts, the curve is upwards for Paulo Bento’s men.

South Korea are seasoned campaigners in world football and have been Asia’s pride for decades. The 2002 World Cup semifinalists are Asia’s most decorated side at World Cups, having featured more than most of their continental counterparts and having had the highest finish of an Asian team at the event. The country has produced footballing royalty with the likes of Park Ji-sung in the past and Son Heung-min in the present playing for some of the best clubs in the world.

South Korea might have had a dip ever since their phenomenal performance in the 2002 edition hosted in their homeland and in Japan, but their performances and progression through the last 2 tournaments has given them reason to smile again.

Koreans can be proud of their team, as it has moved on from being a one man show led by Son, to a team of collectives. The likes of Kim Min-jae and Hwang Hee-chan play for elite European clubs like Napoli and Wolves, while youngsters and unknown commodities like Cho Gue-sung have broken out and shown their quality on the pitch in Qatar.

Both Japan and South Korea have been doing great things in Asia, and are starting to replicate it on the world stage. Despite Europe and South America still remaining the powerhouses of world football, their dominance has been dwindling as the gap between them and the rest seems to be narrowing.

With the World Cup expanding to 48 teams in 2026, more teams will have a chance to feature in the greatest show on earth, and follow in the footsteps of Japan and South Korea. Despite bowing out of this edition of the World Cup, they will already have their eyes set on the next one in 4 years’ time.

These two countries have a footballing heritage that goes back decades. With their fans who rabidly follow the sport and ardently support their countries; they have the backing and impetus to shift the balance of footballing power to the eastern hemisphere. Make no mistake, this isn’t a one-off. Asian football is on the rise.

Also read: Best Players Of The Group Stages – Ranked: FIFA WC 2022

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