The first week of the ongoing FIFA World Cup saw plenty of action on the field, had more than its fair share of upsets and contained sufficient excitement to keep followers of this sport glued to the television screens. Among the top-ranked sides Brazil, France, England, Portugal, Spain and Belgium began their campaign with victories, while Argentina suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia. Germany, too, were caught on the wrong foot against the fleet footed Japan and went down in their opening tie. Iran recovered from the loss against England in their first game to come back strongly to triumph over Wales. And, in one of the most evenly fought matches in this edition of the championship so far, South Korea held Uruguay to a goalless draw.
The common strand linking the sides that cocked a snook at the pre-tournament rankings is that all of them hail from Asia. This has brought forth the question as to whether this tournament is finally witnessing the rise of the largest continent in the world in football. Before we jump to quick conclusions, it should be mentioned that Qatar, the hosts, suffered two defeats in their first two matches, making it evident not all sides from this continent are doing well. However, the fact that four of the five sides allowed to participate in the tournament from this portion of the globe have punched way above their weight indicates the beginning of a slow shift in the balance of power in this popular sport, which hitherto had seen the supremacy of only sides from Europe and Latin America. It must be noted that both Saudi Arabia and Japan could not follow up their good work as they lost to Poland and Costa Rica in their second encounters.
A look at the history of the championship shows that during the past 21 editions, only once has a team from Asia reached the last four stage. This happened in 2002 when South Korea, who were co-hosting the tournament with Japan, reached the semifinals, before going down valiantly to Germany. The Koreans had defeated fancied sides such as Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain during their brilliant run. They eventually finished fourth after losing to Turkey in the losers' final. However, they could not repeat this magic during the subsequent editions, where they could qualify for the knockout stage only once, in 2010.
In fact both South Korea and North Korea have occasionally sent shock waves across the world of soccer. Though South Korea had made their debut in World Cup first - in 1954 - it was North Korea who first drew attention to the potential of Asian football by entering the quarterfinals in 1966. The qualifying matches for this edition of the championship ran into rough weather after FIFA decided to allot only one place for nations from Asia and Africa put together. This resulted in all 15 African nations boycotting the tournament, without playing even one game. In fact very little was known about either North Korea or its football team as the country had shut itself off from the outside world almost completely. Further, finding venues for the conduct of the qualifying matches proved to be difficult as most Asian countries did not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Finally, it was only due to the intervention of Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia that their matches could be held in Phnom Penh. Only Australia took part in the qualifying matches and North Korea defeated them and qualified for the World Cup finals in England.
North Korea were placed in a tough pool along with the USSR, Chile and Italy and were widely expected to be the whipping boys for the other sides, all better known and supposedly superior to them in stamina and skill. They lost their first match 0-3 to the USSR and went down fighting to Chile 0-1 in the next one. But, in the last game, they caused a major upset with a stunning win over Italy (1-0) to enter the last eight stage. In the quarterfinals, they faced Portugal, who had shocked reigning champions Brazil to top their group. Once again, critics chose to favour the European side, calling the win of North Korea over Italy as a mere flash in the pan.
However, when the game started, North Korea dazzled with a demonstration of superb football to score three goals within a span of 25 minutes. After Park Seung-zin scored in the very first minute of the match, Li Dong-woon and Yang Seung-Kook increased the lead in 22nd and 25th minutes respectively. However, Portugal showed tremendous resilience to fight back from this seemingly impossible position. Eusebio, one of the greatest footballers of all time, came to the rescue of Portugal by scoring in the 27th and 43rd minute to bring down the margin by half-time. After that Eusebio struck twice again and Jose Augusto too found the net in the closing stages of the match to give Portugal a 5-3 win. This was a remarkable match wherein Portugal came back after being three goals down and it has gone down in the history of World Cup as one of the best ever, worthy of being rated as a classic by the connoisseurs.
Though South Korea had defeated sides as Portugal, Italy and Spain in their outing in the 2002 championship, none of these matches ever rose to the heights of the one between North Korea and Portugal in 1966. But one of the positive consequences of the good performance of South Korea and Japan in 2002 was that players from Asian countries started getting contracts to play for clubs in Europe and thus got exposure to the top level football played in the Premier League and other championships there. Presently there are four players from Asia playing in English Premier League- two each from from Japan and South Korea. Son Heung-min of South Korea plays for Tottenham Spurs while Takehiro Tomeyasu of Japan turns out for Arsenal, two of the top teams in the Premier League. Japan and South Korea have one player each in LaLiga as well. Currently, there are no players from Iran or Saudi Arabia who play in either of these leagues. One positive outcome of the inspired performance of Asian sides in this World Cup could be the selection of more players from countries in this continent for playing in the top football leagues in Europe.
Here one must compare the performance of Asian teams with their counterparts from Africa. Five nations from Africa are playing in this edition of the championship and so far, only one of them, Senegal has recorded a win, over Qatar. A look at the past performances reveal that no African side has ever qualified into the last four stage and only on three occasions have teams from this continent reached quarterfinals- Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. But players from 14 African nations play in the Premier League at present and a near equal number turn out for clubs in La Liga. Their participation in these top drawer leagues started from the 1990s when sides from Africa started showcasing their potential in the World Cup.
It is too early to say whether the Asian sides will continue their successful run in Qatar during the weeks ahead; similarly one cannot predict with certainty how many of them will make it to the knockout stage. But their improved performance has laid to rest the myth that they are inferior to the sides from other parts of the globe.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)