They will bank on home advantage

SANJAY RAJAN

WE read about the past because the past is refreshingly different from the present. One also goes to the past for knowledge.

When you talk about Asia in relation to World Cup soccer, North Korea's heroic performance in 1966 in England, remains the best.

Pak Doo-ik scored the winner in the side's unexpected 1-0 win over powerhouse Italy in Group IV, which saw the Asian country qualify for the quarterfinals on debut.

In fact, in the quarterfinals against Portugal, the Koreans ran up a 3-0 lead before Eusebio, the Black Panther who is spoken about in the same breath as Pele, took it upon himself to win it, scoring four goals in his side's 5-3 victory.

Four Asian countries - co-hosts Japan and South Korea, China and Saudi Arabia - will compete in this edition, with the first two banking on home advantage. Interestingly, no host nation has ever exited in the Group stage.

Here we take a look at the four countries, their preparations, hopes and fears.

China

For the world's most populous nation, reaching the finals for the first time is itself some kind of tangible success, coming as it does after a 44-year wait highlighted by near-misses in the '93 and '97 qualifiers.

The man behind it all is Yugoslavian Bora Milutinovic, who has taken his fifth team to World Cup finals. In the past, 'Magical' Milutinovic guided Costa Rica, the United States, Mexico and Nigeria into the second round and the people of China will hope he'd wave his magic wand again.

"I hope the time it takes China to become the World champion won't exceed 50 years," Milutinovic announced at a State ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People to honour the squad.

This, we'll have to wait and see. Let's stick to the present for now.

China was pretty convincing in the qualifiers, more so in the final phase where it won five and drew the other in its first six games to guarantee itself a place in the finals with two rounds to spare.

A leading light in the Asian region, China had, in fact, made the semifinals in the Asian Cup in Lebanon last year. Talented, the side undoubtedly is, and it is believed that Milutinovic has succeeded in unifying the outfit and impressing upon it the importance of tactical and mental discipline.

The side was hampered by injury to a number of its players during the preparation phase in April while another curious aspect was the lack of warm-up matches early in the year. "Being hosts, everyone wants to play South Korea and Japan. Saudi Arabia's situation is different in the sense it is only five to six-hour flight for European teams. We are so far away," said 'Milu.' China is grouped in 'C' along with Brazil, Costa Rica and Turkey.

Fan Zhiyi's return to China, on loan from Scottish Premier League team Dundee, has had an inspiring effect on the rest. "He's important. His experience is crucial and he has all the qualities of being a leader on the pitch," said the coach.

Zhiyi and the equally experienced Sun Jihai, presently with Manchester City, are the mainstay of the seasoned defence that is quick in launching speedy counters.

Milutinovic has transformed the 4-4-2 formation into a quick-strike unit, as was noticed in the final round of the qualifiers. He has also realigned his midfield which can move through the gaps created by masquerading strikers.

The experience of having played in Europe is bound to help the likes of Zhiyi, Jihai, Zhang Enhua, Yang Chen and Ma Mingyu, while the side has a number of enterprising youngsters in the likes of midfielder Li Tie and striker Qu Bo. There is also the quiet confidence of forward Hao Haidong, among others.

Zhiyi is hopeful of his team making the next stage, saying, "we have a chance to win over Costa Rica and Turkey."

Japan

This much is certain: Japan will be no pushover in the first World Cup to be conducted in Asia.

In France '98, where it made its debut, Japan lost all its three group matches. Came along coach Philippe Troussier, a Frenchman appointed after that debacle, and he moulded a team that has since dominated the sport at the continental level.

Japan won the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000 and was runner-up in the FIFA Confederations Cup the following year where it beat sides like Cameroon, Paraguay and Australia (twice), held Brazil to a 1-1 draw and lost only to World and European champion France. In fact, Troussier, a former Nigeria and Burkina Faso coach, had rested some of his key players in certain matches.

Japan's star-player, the Parma mid-fielder Hidetoshi Nakata, was absent when the side won the Asian Cup and during the successful Kirin Cup and AFC/OFC Challenge Cup campaigns in 2001.

But the two-time Asian Footballer of the Year was in glorious form in the Confederations Cup, and Troussier hopes Nakata will regain that sublime touch in the World Cup, where the team is grouped in 'H' along with Belgium, Russia and Tunisia. It goes without saying that Nakata is pivotal to Japan's hopes of reaching the knock-out stage.

The advent of the J League has seen Japanese soccer improve tremendously. The core of the team that Troussier guided to the FIFA World Youth championship runner-up spot in Nigeria in 1999 figures in the squad, and that includes Junichi Inamoto, Shinji Ono and Koji Nakata who made the Sydney Olympics 2000 and then the Asian Cup teams.

That a lot more players have gained contracts abroad has pleased Troussier, who has always believed in international exposure for his players.

Takayuki Suzuki, the enterprising bleach-blond Kashima Antlers striker, might not have the iconic status of Masashi Nakayama, but he is as effective as the Jubilo Iwata legend. He and Atsushi Yanagisawa combine exquisitely.

"Since Troussier took over, we've started to produce consistent results. He has created a team of battlers and winners who will fear no-one at the World Cup. Motivation is really high among the players now and I think we have a stronger team spirit than previous Japan teams," said Suzuki.

Saudi Arabia

The 'Sons of the Desert', as the country is called in football circles, has the distinction of being the first Asian team since North Korea in England '66 to make the World Cup second round.

This was on debut, in USA '94, where it was narrowly knocked out in the second round by Sweden. Nevertheless, the Saudis are still remembered for that astounding strike by Saeed Owairan, who, collecting the ball midway in his own half, beat the entire Belgium defence - a solo effort that has become part of World Cup folklore.

Four years later, in France, Saudi Arabia failed to achieve its quarterfinal target, losing to Denmark and the host before salvaging a point and some pride by drawing with South Africa.

Buoyed by the return of Asian Player of the Year, Nawaf Al-Temyat, and Mohammed Al-Shlhoub, who both missed the qualifiers due to injury, expectations at home is high, in what is its third successive World Cup.

Saudi Arabia is in Group 'E' in the first round along with former champion Germany, Republic of Ireland and African champion Cameroon.

The side's run in the qualifiers was not exactly impressive though. It went through courtesy Bahrain, after its qualification hinged on it beating Thailand in the last game and Bahrain defeating Group 'A' leader Iran. Its Arab neighbour did a massive favour.

In the final stage, it drew with Bahrain and lost to Iran which led to the axing of head coach Slobodan Santrac and the return of Nasser Al-Johar who took Saudi back to the top of the group.

Since 1996, there have been eight changes of head coach, with Otto Pfister and Al-Johar holding the position twice.

Saudi's style of soccer is about courage and confidence and its leading light is striker Sami Al-Jaber, who will be playing in his third World Cup. Al-Jaber has decided to retire after this event. He was the first Saudi to play for an English club when he signed up for Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2000, but he returned in four months. The side would also rely on the striking power of Obeid Al-Dossary, who was a revelation in the qualifiers.

"I think we'll do our predecessors who made the finals proud," said Al-Temyat, who has moved to Dutch side Rode JC from Saudi giant Al-Hilal.

South Korea

Korea Republic has played in the World Cup finals for an Asian record five times, including the last four in succession, but has not won a match, let alone getting past the first round. The first time it made it to the finals was in Switzerland '54.

As co-host this time, South Korea hopes to make the last-16 and has worked hard for it. Coach Guus Hiddink has emphasised a lot on power-training, so that the team holds its own physically against the tough European sides. Going by the results in the 'friendlies', his efforts seems to have borne fruits.

There is camaraderie in the team, so different from the sides of the old, with the close bonding of friendship.

Expectations are so high that the side's performance in the Cup could well influence the direction Korean football takes afterwards. South Korea is grouped in 'D' along with Poland, United States and Portugal.

Mid-fielder Lee Young-pyo, who at 25 has earned more than 60 caps, feels that the World Cup will be the turning point. "We've started to break down the wall between us and world football. But the worrying aspect is that we might go back inside the wall if we don't get into the last-16. People might say, 'let's give up learning, let's do it the Korean way."'

There is also the fear that if Hiddink leaves after this, nothing will be the same again. The Dutchman, who had stints with PSV Eindhoven, Holland and Real Madrid earlier, said he is pleasantly surprised at the mental toughness of the players. "When I leave, I hope I'll have initiated a development in Korean football. The team has the potential to do well in the World Cup and after."

The squad consists mainly of home-based (K League) players, some from the J League and a couple of European-based players like forwards Perugia's Ahn Jung-Hwan and Anderlecht's Seol Ki-Hyeon.

The 21-year-old Chong-Gug Song is a midfielder with tremendous promise while Sun-Hong Hwang is still considered as one of the best strikers in Asia.