DOHA: A record six Asian teams will attempt against the odds to emulate South Korea’s historic run to the 2002 semifinals as the World Cup returns to the continent in Qatar.
No Asian team has managed to match the stunning achievements 20 years ago of Guus Hiddink’s vibrant Korean side, who reached the last four on home soil after dumping out 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 they have their work cut out. The Koreans have only reached the knock-out round once since 2002 and their chances have been dealt a blow by a facial injury to striker Son Heung-min.
Son fractured an eye socket playing for Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month and he trained with Korea this week in Qatar wearing a black face mask.
The 30-year-old talisman admitted there was no guarantee he would play in all of his country’s first-round games, against Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
“I came here despite the fact that I am injured and fully aware that there is always a risk of getting hurt,” he said.
“It’s difficult to say ‘I will play in every match’. I would like to update you after monitoring my condition day by day, step by step.”
Japan have reached the World Cup knockout round three times and are looking to upset Germany, Spain and Costa Rica in a tough Group E.
Japan pushed Belgium to the limit before losing 3-2 in their round-of-16 match in Russia four years ago, a game hailed as one of the best of the tournament.
But their preparations hit a bump in the road on Thursday night after a 2-1 defeat to Canada in their final friendly match.
“It was a game that exposed a lot of things that we need to work on, so we have to improve,” said captain Maya Yoshida.
Qatar have never appeared at the World Cup but they go into this year’s tournament with some pedigree after winning the Asian Cup in 2019.
Striker Almoez Ali finished that competition as top scorer and he repeated the feat when Qatar reached the semifinals of North America’s Gold Cup as an invited guest in 2021.
Spanish manager Felix Sanchez is seen as a father figure who has nurtured Qatar’s players during his 16-year association with the country.
He believes “anything can happen” if his team get through a first-round group also containing Holland, Ecuador and Senegal.
“In 2019 it was difficult to imagine that Qatar could win 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 to play at a good level against these three opponents is our challenge.”
Iran have qualified for their third straight World Cup but their preparations have been anything but smooth.
Former manager Carlos Queiroz was re-hired to replace Dragan Skocic when the Croatian was fired in September.
The country has been gripped by anti-government protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, after her arrest for allegedly flouting the strict dress code for women.
Iran captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh said the players were thinking only about the World Cup.
“What I’m trying to say is we are here to play football and that’s the main thing everybody is focused on while we’re here,” said the Feyenoord player.
Australia scraped into the World Cup via a play-off with Peru.
Manager Graham Arnold cannot call on star names like Socceroos coaches in the past, but he has a solid group of players led by Celtic’s Aaron Mooy.
Saudi Arabia won their qualifying group ahead of Japan and will face Argentina, Poland and Mexico in a tough Group C. — AFP