Prior to the 2002 World Cup, only two Asian nations progressed out of the group stages of a World Cup. North Korea reached the quarterfinals of the 1966 tournament before Saudi Arabia progressed to the knockouts in 1994.
But 2002 appeared to be a new dawn. At the first Asia-based World Cup, co-hosts South Korea and Japan reached the semifinals and last-16 respectively to give the continent its best ever showing.
It didn't quite signal the arrival of Asia as a serious force, however. Progress since has been patchy with only the same two teams, Japan in 2010 and 2018 and Korea in 2010, surviving the group stage. Now, two decades on, Asian football hopes for another boost when Qatar hosts the 2022 edition that kicks off in November.
"Asia is still on a journey to reach its true potential, and success at the 2022 World Cup can inspire the surge necessary to elevate the game in Asia," Afshin Ghotbi, a member of South Korea's coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup, told DW.
Benefits of success
To Ghotbi, who also has been the head coach of the Iranian national team as well as top tier clubs in Japan, China and Thailand, "success breeds success." The 2002 World Cup showed that a good showing creates more opportunities for players to go to Europe and play in some of the best leagues in the world. That helps raise standards and also inspires a new generation at home.
"I was so inspired by what I was seeing," said Tottenham forward Son Heung-min, arguably Asian football's biggest star currently. "I just enjoyed every game, watching all the big players. For me, the stars were Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo. I grew up watching those guys."
After the 2002 World Cup, Park and Lee went to Europe to have fine careers. Others have followed. The majority of Japan's full-strength squad plays there and Iran and Korea are well-represented. Elsewhere in Asia however, it is a different story. The squads of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (should they qualify through the playoffs) will be entirely domestic-based. Sending players to Europe is a logical next step for these nations, and the best way to achieve that is to impress on the global stage.
"Having Asian teams reach the second stage of the tournament [is important]," said Ghotbi. "We will always need heroic performances by at least one team reaching the final stages of the tournament to demonstrate Asian football's progress and inspire future development."
Asian nations in the World Cup draw
The draw that was made on April 1 in Doha offers encouragement as well as concerns. "There is still a difference between the top Asian teams and the top teams in Europe and South America," Roel Coumans, former assistant coach with the national teams of Saudi Arabia, Australia and United Arab Emirates, told DW. "It means that whatever the draw for Asian teams, they will face difficult games, but these are good tests."
Ghotbi believes Japan and South Korea received the most difficult draw among the Asian participants. Japan was grouped with with Spain and Germany, world champions in 2010 and 2014 respectively, in Group E. South Korea's Group H looks tough but open with Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana. Saudi Arabia is in Group C with Argentina, Mexico and Poland while Iran will be happiest with England and the United States in Group B.
Hopes in Qatar
Host Qatar will also be satisfied to face Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands. The Asian champions have prepared extensively, participating in the continental championships for both South and North America as well as taking part in a European qualification group.
It is all aimed at giving the players much-needed international experience, and given the extensive preparation, no team will have spent the same amount of time together. "Qatar has invested probably more money than any other nation in the recent history of the game, and by hosting the event will have the biggest chance to reach the second round," said Ghotbi.
Hosting helps, with only South Africa in 2010 not making it past the first round on home soil. "We have seen it over and over in the history of the tournament, location has a massive influence on the performance and results," Ghotbi said. A first Middle Eastern World Cup should also help Iran and Saudi Arabia, who will already be familiar with Qatar's climate and conditions.
"Iran are enjoying a golden generation of players and their die-hard fans across the Gulf will support them. Saudi Arabia have one of their best teams in a long time and will enjoy big support," said Ghotbi.
Could Asia have six teams?
The most positive step for Asia would be to have an unprecedented six teams after a historic five back in 2018. With Qatar as hosts and four automatic berths, there is still a chance for one more. Australia and the United Arab Emirates face each other in a June playoff with the winner meeting Peru for a place in a group containing defending champions France, Denmark and Tunisia.
"It is hard to say which team will win as they are both probably at a similar level in Asia, but if they can qualify, it will be obviously good for Asia," said Coumans. For the Dutchman, what happens between now and November is also crucial. "The level in Europe is generally higher so Asian teams have to prepare as well as possible and play friendly games against top-class opposition."
If Asia can have six teams, good preparation and a little luck then it is just possible that 2022 could be a second 2002.
Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp
Author John Duerden
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