DOHA: Six Asian teams will try, against all odds, to emulate South Korea’s historic run to the 2002 semi-finals as the World Cup returns to the continent in Qatar.
No Asian team has been able to match the impressive feats of Guus Hiddink’s vibrant Korean team 20 years ago, who reached the semi-finals on home soil after eliminating Portugal, Italy and Spain.
Hosts Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Australia – all from the Asian Football Confederation – will dream in the coming weeks of making a similar impact.
But their work stopped. The Koreans have only reached the playoffs once since 2002 and their chances have been dealt a blow by a facial injury to striker Son Heung-min.
Son fractured his eye socket while playing for Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month and trained with Korea Republic this week.
Qatar wears a black face mask.
And the 30-year-old admitted there was no guarantee he would play in all of his country’s first-round matches against Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
He said, “I came here despite the fact that I was injured and fully aware that there is always a risk of getting hurt.”
“It’s hard to say ‘I’ll play in every game’. I’d like to keep you updated after observing my condition day in and day out, step by step.”
Japan have reached the knockout round of the World Cup three times and are looking to upset Germany, Spain and Costa Rica in a tough Group E group.
Japan pushed Belgium to the limit before losing 3-2 in their last 16 tie in Russia four years ago, a match considered one of the best encounters of the tournament.
But their preparations collided on the road Thursday night after losing 2-1 to Canada in their latest friendly.
“It was a match that revealed a lot of things we need to work on, so we have to improve,” said captain Maya Yoshida.
Qatar has never appeared in the World Cup finals, but entered the tournament this year with some pedigree after winning the Asian Cup in 2019.
Striker Al Moez Ali finished that competition as top scorer and repeated the feat when Qatar reached the North American Gold Cup semi-finals as invited guests in 2021.
Spanish coach Felix Sanchez is seen as a father figure who nurtured Qatar’s players during his 16 years of association with the country.
He believes that “anything can happen” if his side make it through a first-round group that also includes the Netherlands, Ecuador and Senegal.
“In 2019, it was hard to imagine Qatar winning the Asian Cup,” Sanchez said recently in an interview with Spanish sports daily Marca.
“Obviously I’m not talking about winning the World Cup but playing well against those three opponents is our challenge.”
Iran has qualified for the World Cup for the third time in a row, but its preparations have not been smooth.
Former manager Carlos Queiroz was reappointed to replace Dragan Skocic when the Croatian was sacked in September.
The country has seen anti-government protests following the death of 22-year-old Mohsa Amini, after she was arrested for allegedly violating a woman’s strict dress code.
Iran’s national team captain Ali Reza Jahanbakhsh said Thursday that the players were only thinking about the World Cup.
“What I’m trying to say is that we’re here to play football and that’s the main thing everyone is focused on while we’re here,” said the Feyenoord player.
Australia catapulted into the World Cup Finals via a play-off with Peru.
Manager Graham Arnold can’t name such star names as Socceroos coaches of the past, but he does have a strong squad of players led by Celtic player Aaron Mooy.
Saudi Arabia won its qualifying group before Japan and will face Argentina, Poland and Mexico in the difficult Group C.