The main event
It took a while for an Asian team to make a mark at the World Cup. Indonesia were the first to compete at the tournament, trading as the Dutch East Indies in 1938, and were battered 6-0 by eventual losing finalists Hungary. The next Asian side to make it fared even worse. In 1954, South Korea were mauled 9-0 by the Hungary side of Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor, then belted 7-0 by a Turkey team that would go on to lose 7-2 against West Germany, who in turn were thumped 8-3 by Hungary in the groups before beating them 3-2 in the final. Strange old tournament, 1954.
But when Asia finally did hit, they hit big in 1966. North Korea started their campaign in what was then considered the trademark Asian style, going down meekly 3-0 to the USSR. They were as good as out before Pak Seung-zin became the first Asian to score a World Cup goal, salvaging a draw with a couple of minutes to spare against Chile. At which point all hell broke loose. The Koreans saw off pre-tournament favourites Italy at Ayresome Park – Pak Doo-ik going down in history – then went three up in 24 minutes against Portugal, before Eusébio restored the old old-world order. England, Eusébio, North Korea: the three big takeaways from 1966, and good luck getting everyone to agree which story was the greatest ever told.
Since that big breakthrough, it’s been slim pickings for Asian sides. A plethora of group-stage exits and the occasional visit to the round of 16 … with one notable exception: co-hosts South Korea’s planetary-axis-bothering run to the semi-finals in 2002, the highlight surely Ahn Jung-hwan getting the better of Paolo Maldini to score the golden goal in the very last act of the great defender’s international career. Probably for the best that VAR wasn’t about for the Spain game, but fourth place is fourth place, whichever way you turn it.
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This time, however, it feels like tectonic plates are shifting. The Asian federation sent six representatives to this World Cup, a total boosted by Qatar’s host status and Australia (yes, yes, but administrators gotta administrate) seeing off Peru in a qualification playoff. The continent has collectively seized its chance to shine. With Qatar the miserable exception, everyone has chipped in. Iran’s defeat of Wales was one borne of pride, verve and bravery, sporting and political. Saudi Arabia pulled off an all-ages stunner against Lionel Messi and Argentina. South Korea eased dark horses Uruguay out of the running with a dramatic never-say-die winner against Portugal. Japan did pretty much all they could to double-whammy both Germany and Spain out in the groups; for three or four minutes back there, it was on.
After all that, another couple of brave last-16 exits would be something of a damp squib. For those taking history as their guide, Croatia and Brazil will end Asian resistance later today, the same old, same old. But factor in the here and now – that Croatia’s superannuated side, “knackered” by their own admission, may be no match for Japan’s hard press; that in Son Heung-min, South Korea have an attacker as dangerous and productive as anyone Brazil can field – and nothing is beyond the realms. Seismic shocks if the five-times winners and 2018 finalists are dispatched? Ignore the concomitant hoo-hah; they’d be medium tremors at best.
Also consider that none of the big teams have performed consistently in Qatar, never mind proved themselves infallible. Should Japan and South Korea make it through today, they’ll play each other in the quarters. And then what? Well, why not. It’s been a long time coming, but the World Cup could finally be Asia’s oyster. SM
Cash’s position-change was on the money
“I remember being told I was playing right-back in a pre-season friendly and I didn’t want to do it,” Matty Cash said after Sabri Lamouchi moved the player from central midfield to defence at Nottingham Forest. The Frenchman had seen something in the youngster than meant he could excel on the right-hand side. Cash had looked a competent midfielder in the Championship but never a certainty for Premier League football. His fitness and commitment makes him a wonderful right-back, possessing both attacking and defensive qualities, attributes Aston Villa paid £16m for. No one could have predicted a few years ago that Cash would be going toe-to-toe with Kylian Mbappé at a World Cup playing for Poland. In the last-16 defeat he impressed with his industry and reading of the game. It just goes to show that young players should be open-minded about their futures, regardless where they have played throughout their youth. WU
Bellingham shows why he is most wanted
There is almost certainly no team in world football who would not wish to have Jude Bellingham in their midfield. His arrival as an England player has helped release the handbrake that Gareth Southgate’s critics frequently speak of, his cruising speed through midfield turning a punishing first half – in which Senegal had been the better team – into a 2-0 half-time lead. Bellingham has long been linked with Liverpool, and were they to find the funds to buy him from Dortmund, would surely supplant Jordan Henderson. For now, the two are international teammates and Bellingham laid on the Liverpool captain’s opener. Their face-to-face shared celebration resembled stags locking horns, and Henderson’s part in it resembled some kind of transfer-window mating ritual to tempt the young tyro to Merseyside. How Liverpool fans must hope they will see the pair celebrate together in a red shirt. JB
For the past quarter-century or so, if you wanted to hear a thoughtful voice discuss the intricacies of football’s place in the wider world you couldn’t go far wrong with Arsène Wenger. These days, though, Fifa’s chief of global football development seems to adopted a rather less nuanced outlook. Talking about the teams to have suffered shock early exits, Wenger diagnosed the common problem: they were distracted by politics. “The teams [who went through] were mentally ready and had the mindset to focus on the competition and not on political demonstrations,” he said. Disappointed in the great man? You and us both.
Meanwhile, where’s Doha’s best party at this World Cup? Go underground, on the bustling concourses and carriages of the city’s Metro system. It’s where fans congregate in a strange world of gleaming metal, driverless trains and gold-class lounges. But it comes with a hidden dark side. The $36bn project is blighted by the 2016 death of labourer Juanito B Pardillowho according to reports had been helping to excavate a tunnel while it was raining when it collapsed, something that went against safety rules. Four others were injured. They were part of an estimated 18,000 workers working for a construction contractor on the project at the time. AH
In Argentina, former international Diego Latorre wrote in La Nación that Lionel Messi’s performance against Australia “was his best ever” in a World Cup and without him the win “would not have been possible”. The former Boca Juniors forward said, unsurprisingly, that Messi was the difference in a tough last-16 tie. Messi was helped by his teammates playing to his strengths to make up for their own inadequacies. They will be hoping he can do the same in the quarter final against Netherlands on Friday.
There was success for Netherlands as they defeated USA on Saturday, although the Dutch press has some concerns about the team. Telegraaf warns we have seen “not a shadow of the Frankie de Jong we know” about the central midfielder. There was more positive news for the Dutch team with Louis van Goal being titled “the World Cup counter king”, thanks to his team’s attacking style that saw them rip through the USA at times. WU
The internet reacts
Lionel Messi is a pavement artist who sees shapes before others, according to Barney Ronay, but surely even he didn’t paint this picture of the UK in his head while leading Australia’s defenders a merry dance …
And Arsenal fans have been an untimely blow by the news Gabriel Jesus has been ruled out of the tournament. Despite their team being five points clear at the top of the Premier League, Gunners supporters were notably dismissive of their side’s chances of winning a first title since 2003, even before this. RB
Japan v Croatia (Round of 16, 3pm GMT, BBC1)
Japan have surprised everyone at this World Cup – perhaps even themselves – and their tussle with Croatia presents an intriguing clash of styles. At their best, Hajime Moriyasu’s men play an intense, expansive, hyperactive brand of football, doing everything quickly, and it is this which has made them such difficult opponents. Croatia are a more studied affair, slowly strangling opponents thanks to one of the world’s best midfields, with Luka Modric’s genius ably supported by the all-round excellence of Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. What the teams share, though, is an indefatigable mentality: Japan have come from behind to beat both Germany and Spain, finishing above both – an absolutely ludicrous effort – while Croatia are now a staple of tournament knockout stages. Chances are, Croatia shade a close one – but they’ll be wary of Japan, who’ve proved yet again the old adage that speed kills. DH
Brazil v South Korea (Round of 16, 7pm GMT, ITV1)
Though few predicted victories for South Korea against Portugal or Cameroon against Brazil, both came over much-changed teams. While momentum is hard to obtain and easy to lose, Brazil are favourites for a reason: they are a settled, cohesive outfit with options on the bench. Most likely, South Korea will defend deep to try and stay in the game while hoping to finagle a goal from somewhere – most likely a counter – or hang on for penalties. Brazil, though have the knowhow and composure to keep at it should they not score early, and one way or another, class should eventually tell. DH
Player to watch
Casemiro It feels slightly odd – slightly wrong, even – to look at a team with as much attacking talent as Brazil and pick out a defensive midfielder. However, while Casemiro is a defensive midfielder and not just one of the best in the world but one of the best of the generation, he is also so much more than that. Though we don’t always see it, we certainly have in this competition – he was one of the stars of the group stages, as much for his passing and shooting as for his tackling and running – and it is no coincidence that Brazil’s defeat to Cameroon came in his absence. But he will be back for the knockouts, and if he maintains his current form, his team will be very hard to stop. DH
And finally …
During the latter period of Louis van Gaal’s career, his teams have been famously unentertaining. But inspired by their manager’s recently recovery from cancer, the Netherlands are improving – Memphis Depay’s opening goal against USA was a thing of beauty. And even if they revert to more staid type against Argentina, Van Gaal remains as fun and engaging a personality as ever – as this video, taken when his squad returned to their hotel after their last-16 victory, encapsulates beautifully.