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Focus on Asian qualifiers

Quartet primed for success

June 7, 2010
By Mattias Krug

Former Holland star Ronald de Boer, who agonisingly missed a penalty during the shootout in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Brazil, has a view on Asian football that few may share.

Kim Jong Hun
GettyImagesKim Jong Hun: Coach of North Korea

Now an Asia-based football commentator, De Boer was positive about the game in the region when he told me earlier this year: "The future of football is certainly here in Asia. There is such a huge potential in this part of the world and it is only a matter of time before there is a World Cup winner from Asia."

That prophetic utterance was made whilst watching a North Korean side warm-up for the World Cup by winning a friendly tournament in Qatar in January. But the really pertinent question this week, with just days remaining before the World Cup begins, is: can any of the four Asian teams really make a mark in South Africa, or even win the tournament itself?

Talk of favourites is centred on the usual suspects: Spain, Brazil, England, Argentina, maybe Holland. But what about Japan, Australia, South Korea and North Korea?

Let's begin by looking at North Korea's form going into their first World Cup since causing quite a splash on their debut in 1966. North Korea won that friendly tournament against Mali, Iran and the host nation Qatar. It was enough to gauge what the North Korean football approach is all about: organisation, fighting spirit, more organisation and defending in depth.

But with all that in their arsenal, can North Korea really expect to advance from a group containing Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast? The answer is yes: the World Cup is full of surprises. Of course they can. But whether they will depends very much on their first encounter against Brazil on June 15.

If the North Koreans can take something from that encounter - a draw at least - there is a chance that the Chollimas (a mythical Korean winged horse renowned for its strength and speed) could grow wings and become something other than the whipping boys of the so-called 'Group of Death'.

Already ahead of the tournament some people have labelled Kim Jong-Hun's team the laughing boys of South Africa, after the coach registered striker Kim Myong-Won as the third goalkeeper in his 23-man final squad. FIFA promptly decreed that Kim (the striker) would only be allowed to play as a goalkeeper. So was this a flash of creative genius or a silly and embarrassing blunder on the manager's part?

Will Kim train with the goalkeepers or with the strikers, or a little with both? Or is this a North Korean version of Johan Cryuff's famous 'Total Football'? Actually, there is something entirely more ingenious to this move than meets the ordinary football eye. There is a hidden message. You only have to look for it. The hidden message is: Brazil, we are coming at you with all the firepower we have. Portugal, there is no striker we can afford to leave at home. And Ivory Coast, we are not worried as much about our goalkeepers as about our strikers.

South Korea skipper Park Ji-Sung
GettyImagesSouth Korea skipper Park Ji-Sung

And think about it. How likely is it that both of the other goalkeepers get injured? When has that ever happened? And even if it does happen, there is another advantage for the North Koreans. If they are trailing in the last minute and need to score from the last corner kick, the goalkeeper can rush up and apply the finishing touch.

Moving on to the preparations of the South Korean team, whose coach Huh Jung-Moo will be looking for a measure of revenge after being outdone by Diego Maradona in a classic 1986 World Cup encounter as a player. Now the two face-off again in management, with claims that this is the best South Korean team yet - better even than that home side which was propelled by a wave of euphoria to the semi-finals in 2002.

Indeed, many experts see the South Koreans as the Asian team most likely to spring a surprise in South Africa. South Korea appear capable of emerging from their group, which also contains Argentina, Greece and Nigeria.

Again, the opening encounter against Greece on the second day of the World Cup looks a key clash for the Asian favourites; win it and they will ride a wave of confidence through the group stages and into potentially a somewhat manageable date with a team from Group A in the Second Round.

A quarter-final berth thus seems a realistic option for the South Koreans, especially given their pre-tournament form and the compact squad they have at their disposal. This year's midfield contains plenty of British-based steel; captain Park Ji-Sung, of Manchester United fame, as well as Bolton's Lee Chung-Yong and Celtic's Ki Sung-Yong, making for a tough central axis which will take some breaking down by Lionel Messi and co.

South Korea have twice beaten Japan this year already in warm-up games, and I saw them going down to a narrow 1-0 defeat against Euro 2008 Champions Spain last week in Innsbruck. In that match, Huh's men were missing Park, but certainly had their chances. Perhaps just that little bit of self-belief was missing. The belief that they could beat the European Champions.

Belief seems to be forcefully installed in the Blue Samurai from Japan, who have been the Asian team with perhaps the worst build up to the tournament. Losses to South Korea, England (by a somewhat respectable 2-1 scoreline) and Ivory Coast mean the Japanese go into the tournament without a win.

Japan open their World Cup campaign on June 14 against Cameroon, well aware that their group offers little scope for further victories. Both Holland and Denmark look handy sides indeed, making coach Takeshi Okada's goal of a semi-final place seem a dream.

Keisuke Honda
GettyImagesKeisuke Honda: Crucial for Japan's hopes

The Japanese players have begun shedding some of the traditional Asian modesty, as Keisuke Honda, one of the players to watch out for at the tournament, said when asked about Japan's aims.

"I personally think it would be good to aim at winning the World Cup rather than settling for the semi-finals," the CSKA Moscow forward claimed. Honda will be looking to heat up Japan's engine room with the likes of Asian Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo and former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura at his side.

The final Asian team in the fray will be former Oceania side Australia, who qualified from the Asian confederation with some ease, and were also the first team to arrive in South Africa. Thus being the 'early birds' of the tournament, Pim Verbeek's team will be looking to get off to a quick start in their opener against Germany on June 13.

The Dutch coach has already said it would be a 'special pleasure' to down his arch-rivals' national team, but the Aussies need to watch out for a young generation of German players who might just benefit from the added responsibility after the loss of captain Michael Ballack through injury.

With Serbia and Ghana also looking like formidable rivals, the Aussies - particularly Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill - will need to be at their very best to emerge from this group and repeat their second round showing from four years ago.