Commentary: With Japan and Saudi Arabia upsets at World Cup, Asian football is showing it can compete with the best
What is remarkable about these performances is the calibre of opposition these Asian teams have faced, says CNA’s Matthew Mohan.
DOHA: Two consecutive days, two consecutive shocks, two of the biggest wins by Asian teams at any World Cup.
First Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. Then Japan followed up with an unlikely comeback victory against Germany.
Each match followed an eerily similar pattern.
First, the hot favourites would score a penalty. But the Asian side would hold their nerve, score two goals, and take the three points.
Twenty-four hours after Japan's victory, South Korea would hold two-time world champions Uruguay to a stalemate.
Though not as impressive as the giant-killings by the Saudis and Japan, the result against a team 14 spots ahead in the world rankings was an impressive one.
CALIBRE OF OPPOSITION
What is remarkable about these performances is the calibre of opposition these Asian teams have faced.
Argentina are ranked third in the world, had not lost a game in 36 matches, and are captained by none other than Lionel Messi.
Four-time world champions Germany - though not the powerhouse they once were - boast experienced players such as Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer as well as promising young stars in the form of Jamal Musiala.
Uruguay are seasoned contenders, and have in their ranks grizzled veterans such as Diego Godin, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, but also a new generation of footballers such as Federico Valverde and Darwin Nunez.
Argentina and Germany were tipped by most to go far in this edition of the World Cup, while others had predicted Uruguay to be one of the tournament's dark horses.
In contrast, most, if not all the Asian teams had been written off before the tournament.
But over the last few days, these results - and its not just about the points collected, but what the points represent - show that Asian teams can compete with the best in world football.
"We saw the Saudi victory over Argentina - the Asian countries are reaching the global standard," said Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu after his team's win.
There are a total of six Asian teams participating in this edition of the World Cup.
Qatar, who qualified by virtue of being host nation, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan who made the World Cup finals through the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) World Cup qualifiers and Australia, who are a member of the AFC, through intercontinental play-offs.
And this meant that history was made before a ball was even kicked in Qatar as this is the most number of AFC teams which have featured at a tournament.
And while Qatar struggled, Iran were punished and Australia were outclassed, the performances of their three counterparts have altered the narrative.
On the surface, there is little similarity between the Japanese, South Korean and Saudi Arabian squads.
Most of Japan's players play in Western Europe, with only seven J-League players in the team.
On the other hand, about half of South Korea's players play in the K League, while all of Saudi Arabia's players feature in their domestic league.
But dig deeper and you'll find that one common factor behind these early successes at the World Cup is good coaching.
The Saudis were adventurous in their approach, defending with a high line and taking the game to the Argentinians. And there was also the matter of an inspirational half-time team talk by head coach Herve Renard.
"We have a crazy coach. He motivated us during half-time, telling us stuff that made us want to eat the grass," said midfielder Abdulelah Almalki.
Then there was Moriyasu's tactical awareness in introducing Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu at halftime to switch to a back three and then throwing substitutes Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano on.
Doan netted the equaliser, while Asano smashed home the winner.
And while South Korea failed to find the back of the net against Uruguay, they looked well-drilled by tactician Paulo Bento and played some tidy possession football as well.
It has also been suggested that the mentality of players in Asian teams provide them with an edge.
Speaking after the Samurai Blue's historic victory, Roma coach Jose Mourinho pointed out a difference between European and Asian players.
"In European football there is a big focus on the individual, a big focus on egos," he said.
"I never coached Japanese players but I coached Asian players ... The team is the most important thing. People play for the team. They don't play for themselves."
DARING TO DREAM
Asian teams are no strangers to deep runs at past World Cups.
Japan, who made their first appearance at the tournament in 1998, reached the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup when they were joint-hosts.
They would go on to repeat this feat in Russia when they were beaten in heartbreaking fashion by Belgium at the same stage of the competition.
South Korea have gone one step further.
At the 2002 World Cup, they reached the semi-finals before being eliminated by Germany. The fourth-placed finish is the best an Asian team has recorded at the World Cup.
But one swallow does not a summer make.
While the three points put Japan and Saudi Arabia in good stead to make the round of 16, their progression is by no means guaranteed.
Japan will need to beat Costa Rica and still face a tough test against Spain. The Saudis will face Poland and Mexico, two sides that will be desperate for a victory after cancelling each other out.
South Korea are also in with a shout of making it through, and could put themselves in contention with a win against Ghana next week.
Till then, fans will try to keep their feet on the ground and their head out of the clouds. Expectations will be tempered, exuberance will be suppressed.
But for now, Asian football fans will dare to dream. And rightly so.
Matthew Mohan is a senior journalist at CNA. He specialises in sports reporting, and is currently at the FIFA World Cup.