The arrival of the World Cup in South Africa had fostered hopes that the comfortable hegemony enjoyed by European and South American nations would be placed in jeopardy. But with Ivory Coast's preparations descending into farce, it appears the torch of optimism and title of most promising underdogs has been passed to South Korea, the side that defeated them 2-0 in a friendly international at QPR's Loftus Road last week.
Naming Huh Jung-Moo's side as potential dark horses is hardly a leap of faith. South Korea have qualified for the past six tournaments and a semi-final appearance in the 2002 competition on home soil is the finest performance by any country outside of Europe and South America in World Cup history. Though few would predict a repeat, confidence is certainly growing within the camp. Speaking after a game in which his side outclassed and, more surprisingly, outfought a woeful Ivory Coast side, Park Ji-Sung expressed the belief that South Korea are certainly the finest team representing their continent at present.
"Are South Korea the best team from Asia? Yes I believe that," Park said, in front of thousands of adoring fans who waited 45 minutes after the final whistle to see their hero address the press. "We have proved that with our history and in the Asian qualification as well. Against Japan, against any Asian team we have carried out good results. I would say we are the best team in Asia."
Allied to such evident confidence is a growing cache of knowledge. Park has led the exodus of Korean players to Europe in recent years having represented both PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United at the highest level, but Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton), Ki-Sung-Yong (Celtic) and Cha Du-Ri (Freiburg) all add invaluable experience of European football that could serve South Korea well in the summer. As Park explains: "Before we didn't have any experience out of our country and didn't know how to deal with that type of player. But now we have quite a few players with experience of Europe or somewhere else. That makes us more confident to play against European or any other teams."
But while Asian sides are growing in confidence, stature and experience, the weight of history remains firmly against them. The overbearing dominance of European and South American sides is reflected in Park's response when asked what Asian countries can realistically aspire to. He says, "If one of the teams get through the group stages it will be a success for Asia." Encouraging for the continent perhaps, but it is a shame for the rest of the world that challenging the established powers appears as unrealistic as ever, even with South Korea in confident mood.
It seems as though England's World Cup preparations just cannot help but attract controversy. The unseemly saga of John Terry's (still alleged) extra-marital affairs was just beginning to die away and then Fabio Capello was hit by Tuesday's revelations that a team meeting prior to last week's friendly victory over Egypt had been secretly recorded by a mystery party. Sir Alex Ferguson believes the situation "is a concern" having been involved in a similar incident in 2005, and the fact that security has been breached will be of real concern to the FA, as is the thought that Fabio Capello's tactical plans and motivational techniques could have been exposed to the outside world ahead of a crucial few months for the national side. However, rumours that Capello was heard to exclaim, "That Peter Crouch has got a good touch for a big man, hasn't he?" remain unconfirmed.
PLAYER IN FOCUS: Liedson
Born in Brazil yet representing Portugal this summer, Liedson is one of a number of Carlos Queiroz's squad who will face his native country in Group G. He certainly appears in ominous form at present as, having scored for Portugal in a 2-0 win over China on March 3, the striker then excelled for his club at the weekend when scoring all four of Sporting Lisbon's goals against Belenenses. Liedson will be eagerly awaiting June 25 and said of facing the country of his birth: "I was born in Brazil and I really love my country, but I'm going to give everything I've got to help Portugal win. That game is like a final and I think it's probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the entire group phase. It's going to be spectacular." You can read the remarkable story of his journey from supermarket shelf stacker to World Cup striker in full here.
WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Just when you were getting sick of the constant Alessandro Nesta updates, Francesco Totti decides to speculate once more about his own possible comeback to the Italy fold. "Returning to the Azzurri? I don't know because I have not spoken with the coach about it," Totti told Canal+. "I have to evaluate my physical condition and then we have to see if the group wants me there. It's one thing after another." Yes, yes it is.