Half a month of the World Cup is over, and there are already some obvious winners (and losers, of course). With the world watching with bated breath, a few excelled, while others wilted in the pressure that it brought.
Three of the pre-tournament favourites — Belgium, Germany and Denmark — have already packed their bags and reached home. All three are from Europe, the continent with the biggest stake. Eight from there made it to the knockouts, but Asia and Africa surprised the most with five spots in the round of 16. For long, clamour has been growing to curb Europe’s undue advantage in this global event and to balance the ambitions of Asia and Africa where more than 80 per cent of the world’s population lives today.
Japan has been the poster boy of this football renaissance, with two former world champions already slain by the Samurai sword. The first to fall was 2014 victor Germany, and the second stunning turnaround came against 2010 winner Spain. Both were come-from-behind wins. The dramatic turn of events at the Khalifa Stadium could be attributed to coach Hajime Moriyasu’s half-time revamp, with his side trailing 0-1 to Luis Enrique’s Spain.
The new legs of Ritsu Doan hammered the equaliser three minutes after the restart. And the noisy fans of Japan erupted like the spewing lava of the Fujiyama volcano as Ao Tanaka made it 2-1 from the other half-time substitute Kaoru Mitoma’s cut back. Debate will forever rage whether this ball had crossed the byline. FIFA released a video to save its back and every home math teacher dissected it from every angle, their answer to this question of optical illusion varied based on the side of the fence they were sitting on.
Gift for the Japanese
For the coach, the physics or math didn’t matter; he was happy to see his team in the pre-quarters. “There were many fans who came all the way from Japan, as well as those that stayed behind in Japan,” Moriyasu said. “We are gifting this win to the people of Japan, and we are very happy about it.”
This was a gift worth its weight in gold and Asia could justify the increase of its berth to 8 and 1/3 from the 4.5 it had this term.
Cafu, the Brazilian great, knows a thing or two about winning the World Cup and he, too, agreed that Asia deserves more. He was left impressed by the composure of the three teams from the region that made it to the knockouts. “Asian football is growing over the years, and the players now look more composed. A lot of them play in Europe and you improve both in terms of quality and experience of managing a game,” the 2002 World Cup winner told Sportstar. “Asian players have benefited from that experience and are using it to cause upsets at this World Cup.”
Nineteen of Japan’s squad play their football in Europe.
“I’m sick of hearing about being a ‘good loser,’” former Premier League star Maya Yoshida had told public broadcaster NHK ahead of the World Cup. “I am honestly tired of hearing about Japan being a wonderful country for cleaning the locker room and being recognised for that. I’d rather be a winner than a good loser.”
And their fans and players were doing both here. Images of Japanese fans cleaning up stadiums and its players cleaning up the opposition have gone viral since then.
Japan had more continental company to the knockouts from Korea Republic and Australia. Son Heung-min and his team-mates’ progression also came with similar drama. A 2-1 win over Portugal confirmed their berth as Luis Suarez was left inconsolable at the Al Janoub Stadium after Hwang Hee-chan’s injury-time winner left Uruguay one goal short of qualification.
Asian and African cavalcade
Though Saudi Arabia and Iran didn’t go through, they, too, packed a punch in defeating Argentina and Gareth Bales’ Wales in the early rounds. “Asia is growing so quickly. People can sit back at home and their opinion is maybe Saudi Arabia is not that good, or Japan. Look at what they have done – beaten Argentina, beaten Germany,” Aussie coach Graham Arnold said. His team negotiated a tricky group that had France, Denmark and Tunisia, and finally lost only to the tricks of Lionel Messi.
“For Asia as a whole, and for Japan, our victories over Spain and Germany, two of the top teams in the world, are something that will give us great confidence and we are very pleased. There are many things we have to learn, but Asians can win on the world stage,” Moriyasu echoed.
The Africans, too, were not far behind. Senegal and Morocco made it past the group stage, Cameroon made history by beating the mighty Brazilians, while Tunisia defeated defending champion France. Senegal came ahead of Qatar and Ecuador, while Morocco topped a group that had Croatia and Belgium, the 2018 World Cup runner-up and third-place winner.
Walid Regragui, who took over the reins of Morocco three months prior to the Cup, has been the hero of his nation. Very quickly, he found the right balance and united everyone, making the most of the talented players he had in Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech.
The Atlas Lions qualified with an unbeaten record from their three games, and in his post-match press conference after the Canada match, Regragui was candid about his team’s ambitions. “We set ourselves an objective to give everything we have and get out of the group stages,” he said when asked if Morocco could win the World Cup. “After that, why not? Aim for the sky. We need to change our mentality and we will be a difficult team to beat. Why not dream about winning that trophy? As African teams we need to set this objective.”
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse, who guided his team to its first World Cup knockouts since captaining Senegal to the quarterfinals in 2002, was left impressed with his team’s run despite the round-of-16 loss to England. “We worked hard for years to become the best team in Africa, but now we were facing one of the best teams in the world. You could see that difference. England were very good, and we were not at our top level. We certainly missed Sadio Mane [who was injured before the World Cup] this tournament. But I am satisfied with what the team has shown in four games. We must learn from this,” Cisse said, promising more surprises from African teams in the future.
The Cup might not be theirs yet but teams from Africa and Asia are no longer pushovers. They can compete with the best. This World Cup has brought them new respect and admirers, and in years to come, 2022 will be known for waking up two footballing giants.
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