South Korea, whose fourth place as co-host in 2002 was an Asian record, lost 2-0 to Switzerland yesterday to miss out on the round of 16. Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia finished bottom of their groups.
Away from Asia, where Japan reached the second round in 2002 as co-host, teams struggled to cope with opponents groomed in Europe’s top leagues, players and coaches said.
“Now we’re in Europe it’s a different time, different place, different weather, different atmosphere,” Saudi captain Sami Al Jaber said after yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to Spain. “This is the real World Cup.”
Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia got one point and scored twice in their three games. Only Korea, which needed a victory over the Swiss to advance, won a match with a 2-1 success against a Togo side that was last in their group.
Japan threw away a 1-0 lead with eight minutes left of its first game against Australia, committing defensive errors before going down 3-1. A draw against Croatia was followed by a 4-1 drubbing by Brazil.
“It is a setback for football in Japan,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter said in Berlin yesterday.
Zico, Japan’s Brazilian coach, pointed to difficulties dealing with high crosses and an inability of strikers to take their chances. He said the last eight minutes against Australia had proven “fatal.”
“Japan has had only 10 years of professional football and there is some way to go before we can be equal to the great powers in the game,” Zico said. “We have gained attention but we still have shortcomings.”
The Asians weren’t helped by the draw, especially Japan’s grouping with Brazil, Croatia and Australia, according to South Korea coach Dick Advocaat. South Korea also faced 1998 champion France. Asia will continue to struggle until more players move to Europe and local leagues are strengthened, Advocaat said.
“The difference is they have players all playing on good teams in Europe,” he said yesterday. “There’s a lot of talent in Korea but what they really have to do is improve the league.”
Korea assistant coach Pim Verbeek said the Koreans in Europe such as Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung need to play more often for their clubs. “We have players in Europe but they’re not playing in Europe,” he said.
Asian soccer experts including Mohamed bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, expected Iran to cause a surprise. Defensive blunders contributed to an opening loss to Mexico before a defeat to Portugal sealed the team’s fate.
“I don’t think we were up to it to be frank,” Iran defender Hossein Kaabi said.
Before 2002, only two Asian teams made it past the first round: North Korea in 1966 and Saudi Arabia in 1994. Asia’s argument for more World Cup spots won’t have been strengthened, though Australia’s inclusion in the Asian confederation in time for the next tournament may help.
Guus Hiddink, who coached Korea to the semifinals four years ago, has lifted the Australians into the last 16 for the first time where it will face Italy in two days. Asian hopes will again be pinned on the Dutchman.
“It’s very positive that Australia is in the Asian group,” South Korea’s Tottenham defender Lee Young Pyo said in an interview. “It will improve the quality of Asia. It’s very important for us to get more World Cup slots.”
It’s not just Asia struggling to make an impact.
Of Africa’s five representatives, only Ghana made it into the round of 16 where it will meet record five-time champion Brazil. The U.S. and Trinidad & Tobago — two of the three teams from the Central and North American and Caribbean grouping — finished last in their groups with one point each.
“The powerhouses of South America and Europe have not really been challenged yet,” Blatter said. “There’s less internationalism in the round of 16 which is a shame.”