The 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Korea and Japan, still represents the best results by Asian teams in the prestigious tournament, with Korea having reached the semi-finals before being knocked out by Germany. In Brazil in 2014, all four Asian teams finished bottom of their group, highlighting the gap between Asia and other continents. So who will carry Asia’s hopes in Russia?
Four years ago, it took some Lionel Messi magic in the final moments of their game against Iran to end the latter’s dreams of progressing to the knockout stage. Carlos Queiroz, who once worked as Sir Alex Ferguson’s number two at Manchester United, built a well-organized team with limited resources.
Nine players of the 23 who went to Brazil in 2014 were based overseas but the majority were spread around the Middle East. Those that weren’t were generally playing in the second tiers of the big European leagues.
This time around, Queiroz will have more options going forward with a younger side overall but one boasting much more international experience.
Two impressive young Iranian talents have emerged in recent years in Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun and AZ Alkmaar forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Aged 23 and 24 respectively, they represent the new generation of Iran football following the retirement of the legendary Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia. Azmoun has already scored in the Champions League for Rubin Kazan and has been linked with European clubs such as Liverpool and Everton.
After Daei’s retirement from international football at the end of the 2006 World Cup, Iran struggled to find regular goal-scorers but Azmoun has stepped forward as the heir with 23 goals in 31 games for his country since debuting in May 2014.
Jahanbakhsh has also improved massively since joining AZ Alkmaar in 2015, scoring 34 goals in 85 appearances for the Dutch team. His sublime performances this season saw him score 21 goals and add 12 assists, becoming the first Asian player ever to finish top goal scorer in a leading European league.
The overall improvement in Iran is reflected in the fact that they were the second team in the world to seal qualification for the finals behind only Brazil, doing so with two games to spare. Four years ago, they only secured their birth on the final day. However, Iran’s journey this summer will be difficult as their tough group includes teams like Spain, Portugal and Morocco. It will take some extraordinary performances from this small nation to progress to the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
The rest of the Asian teams’ hopes in the World Cup are not so bright. Japan topped its group, which included Asian champions Australia, to qualify for the World Cup finals but has looked far from the Asian power it once was since, having been blown away 4-1 by traditional rivals South Korea and drawn 3-3 with lowly Haiti in friendlies.
Those performances resulted in coach Vahid Halilhodžić being sacked just two months out from the World Cup, replaced by Japan Football Association technical director Akira Nishino. Moving beyond the group stage will be difficult given the lack of game time to adapt the team to its new playing style.
South Korea has Son Heung-min in its squad, but are also in a very tough group with Germany and Mexico – and the Tottenham Hotspur winger tends to be quiet on big occasions.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia finds itself up against host nation Russia – never an easy proposition in front of a raucous home crowd – as well as two stars of the global game in Mohamed Salah, who guided Egypt to the finals, and Luis Suárez with Uruguay.
As for Australia? The defending Asian Cup champions have been a powerhouse of the region for the past decade but this squad looks a far cry from the squad that surged into the knockout stage in 2006.
The Australians missed automatic qualification on goal difference thanks to a 2-0 loss to Japan and sluggish 2-1 win over Thailand in their final two games, booking their place instead by downing Syria in a play-off.
The side’s struggles ultimately saw coach Ange Postecoglou step down after five years in charge, replaced by Dutchman Bart van Marwijk – the same man who led Saudi Arabia to qualify for Russia before a dispute with the football association saw them part ways.
Van Marwijk is most famous for leading the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final but with little time to work with his players and a lack of depth in his roster it’s hard to see Australia overcoming a group that features big guns France, plus Peru and Denmark.
The Socceroos will rely heavily on aging veteran Tim Cahill to produce more magic following his world-class performances over the past three World Cups, but with only a 4-1 loss to Norway and a 0-0 draw with Colombia to show for their first two outings under the new coach, Australia must improve quickly if it is to produce a World Cup fairytale.