Saudi Arabia's forward Saleh Al-Shehri celebrates with Firas Al-Buraikan after scoring | AFP
It is all happening in the ongoing World Cup football. Even as excitement mounts what still stands out is the level of unpredictability that has stood out this time in this Qatar edition. If anyone thought things would pan out based on the teams’ reputation, ranking, and recent performances then, all those parameters have been dumped, and what is newly added is the factor of ‘form and enterprise on the day no matter who the opponent is. In short, no team could be taken for granted. Such has been the flow of happenings this time and particularly the performances of counties like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia in particular that perhaps it may not be futile to dream of an Asian country rising past the top four, nay even top two and why even win the coveted FIFA trophy! A few editions earlier, any such talk would have been referred to as insane thinking, even ridiculed. Perhaps, it is time for a rethinking, and Qatar has enforced the belief that Asian countries have in them to reach high in this sport. The belief was that the first World Cup in Asia, held in 2002 in Korea and Japan, would place Asian football on the continental map while the second in Qatar now could see Asian football rise. Are we seeing the truth of that now?
True with six countries in the fray for the first time in the World Cup from the Asian zone, including Qatar, which came in as the host, aside from Japan, Australia, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the setting was auspicious for Asia. Even if Qatar could not come in the same league as the rest and become the first host nation to lose the very first match, things turned around soon after, courtesy of Saudi Arabia. The gulf powerhouse sent the vast concourse of supporters crying hoarse with a stunning win over the Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina after being a goal down initially! The result made everyone check for a parallel in World Cup history there have been a few such stunning reverses in the past, but what struck everybody was the suddenness of the happening. Saudi had not looked capable at that stage to upset the applecart of Argentina, but in a matter of five minutes, the complexion changed dramatically thanks to the classic strikes by Al Shehri and Al Dawsari. As irony would have it, Argentina survived that slip to regain its path to the next round, where Saudi fell off! That was a pity.
But Saudi had done enough to encourage Japan in a group which had the two giants and former champions Germany and Spain apart from Costa Rica. Experts believed this Group had the look of being the ‘Group of Death’. And so it proved with Japan displaying its credentials as an emerging force. Japan like Saudi had done the impossible of beating Germany, again like Saudi after being a goal down. Two strikes of exceptional precision by Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano in the space of eight minutes sent the Japanese supporters into a frenzy. Asano’s goal in fact was such a class act that it could easily get rated as one of the best in the history of the World Cup. With just enough space for the ball to squeeze in and a difficult angle to aim from, Asano on the run sent it over Neuer to the roof of the net in one swing. With seven to eight players in the Japanese side a regular in the German league, it seemed a case of familiarity that proved an advantage for the Japanese players! What is more, that defeat virtually laid the path for Germany’s exit from Japan again later beating Spain to the top and becoming Group leader pushing Spain to the second spot.
Equally inspirational have been the journeys of both South Korea and Australia both having qualified with performances that mattered. Where South Korea stopped Uruguay in its group, Australia held back Tunisia and Euro 2020 semi-finalist Denmark with winsome efforts. What was noteworthy was that all the wins had come against higher-ranked opponents. In 2002, the co-hosts Japan and South Korea had impressed with both of them going past the group stage. Korea even went on to reach the semi-final to finally finish its best-ever fourth place. Just as well that in this second edition in Asia, these two countries have been providing the splashes along with Australia. What is more all this is coming at a crucial juncture when this competition is all set to expand to 48 teams from the next edition in 2026. Where these teams will reach in Qatar is not as important as the fact that they have brought Asian abilities to the fore. Call it globalisation in some ways for most of the players of these countries ply their trade in Europe in the cash-rich league. Not only does that allow them to sharpen their skills in the best of the environment but crucially it enables them to mingle with the best players of the sport. Japanese players in particular vouch for that.
In the midst of all these happening one question that will be there on the lips of football lovers in the country will be, can India ever be part of this select band at the World Cup? It is the national league launched in the 90s that set Japan on the course of football growth and that was a lesson India had to learn. The giant of the sixties, can India regain that forgotten glory. That will be the fond wish as the World Cup competition is set to expand and attract more aspirants to the greatest sporting spectacle.