With just over 3 months left to set the ball rolling in Russia, the excitement has just started to build up. The world cup is by far the most followed sporting event in the world and 32 teams that have made the cut will have immense expectations from their fans. Russia 2018 will be different from the past editions as giants like Chile, Italy, Netherlands, USA, Ghana have failed to qualify which has paved the way for many new teams. Today we take a look at the Asian nations that have qualified for the tournament, and their chances of progress.
Asian nations have failed to make it big on the world stage over the years. Maybe the feeling of ‘it feels good just to be there’ is the main reason behind this. South Korea made a dream run to the Semi-Finals in 2002 when they co-hosted it, although their results were controversial. The only other occasion when an Asian nation made it to the quarter-final was North Korea in 1966. Other than this, the round of 16 is the furthest AFC associated teams have gone. 4 nations have dominated the continent over the past few years; Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran. This time, Saudi Arabia mark their return to the world stage after last featuring in 2006.
The Returns of the Arabs
Saudi Arabia qualified for 4 consecutive tournaments from 1994 to 2006 but narrowly missed out on the next two editions. This time, they comprehensively overcame the Qualification campaign to book their tickets to Russia. Fortunately for them, they have a very favourable group consisting of Uruguay, Egypt and hosts Russia. Although it cannot be called an easy group, it is surely one of the most interesting ones due to all the teams being evenly matched. Coached by the former Copa America winner Juan Antonio Pizzi, they can surely fancy themselves to have a great run in Russia. With their league structure being one of the best in the continent in terms of quality, and with a few players playing in the Spanish system, Saudi Arabia will not just look to make their presence felt. Mohammad Al Sahlawi was the joint top scorer in the qualification campaign and will carry the responsibility of spearheading the attack. After making it to the second round in the very first attempt, the Falcons failed to make it past the group stage in the later editions. This time, however, a quarterfinal finish is what they can expect at the least.
South Korea will rely on the experience
South Korea has been by far the most prolific Asian nation to have ever participated at the world cup. 1954 was the first time they qualified, with the next Qualification being 32 years later in 1986. Since then, they have qualified for every tournament. But results have been hard to come by with 2002 being an exception. 2010 was not bad as well when the mad it to the second round, where they lost to Uruguay. Other than this, they have mostly finished last at the group stages.
The 2002 squad predominantly consisted of players from the domestic league, unlike recent editions where quite a few players plied their trade in top European Leagues. Although they have the individual qualities required, they will have to gel together as a team to yield results on the world stage. At Russia 2018, they have a pretty tough group consisting of defending champions Germany, Mexico and Sweden. They will have to take one match at a time, and their primary aim will be to go past the group stages.
Better prepared Iranians
Iran has been traditionally strong on the continental stage, and are making an appearance at the world cup for the 5th time. This will be for the first time that they have qualified for two consecutive tournaments after having qualified for the 2014 edition as well. The 3 time Asian Champions have never made it past the group stage, with their only victory coming against the USA in 1998, in a match with serious political implications. Unfortunately, this time their group is a highly unfavourable one, with Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Qualification to the knockouts looks bleak, but an upset may just be on the cards. Serdar Azmoun, who was once on the Arsenal radar will be the player to watch out for.
Interesting group for Japan
Japan has been placed in a very interesting group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland. The teams are pretty evenly matched and will be a great race for the top 2. After qualifying for their first tournament in 1998, the Samurai Blues have qualified for every tournament since then. The round of 16 has been their best performance so far and will look to improve upon that. Japan is surely a constantly improving football nation. With good planning and support from their federation, the future of Japanese football looks bright. With numerous players plying their trade in Bundesliga and other top leagues, they can be optimistic of a good run. Russia 2018 can be a game changer for the sport in the country.
Australia will have to prove their worth
Russia 2018 will be the Socceroos’ 5th appearance at the FIFA world cup. Their best performance as an AFC nation was in 2006 where they qualified for the second round after finishing ahead of Croatia and Japan. A late penalty in the knockout stage saw them being eliminated. The 2010 edition saw them being narrowly missed out on the knockouts in goal difference. 2014 was a forgettable tournament where they lost all the matches. The somehow managed to qualify for this event through the inter-confederation Playoff. With an ageing squad and an unstable league structure, their future at the world stage is in disarray. France, Denmark and Peru will be their opponents, and the fight will surely be for the second spot.