For years Asian teams were proud just to have made it to a World Cup or Olympics football event and considered anything they gained from their participation a bonus. The far more superior European, South American and African sides identified their games against the Asian teams as a chance to rest their best players or gain a morale-boosting emphatic victory. Certainly, the Golden Boot contenders looked upon such encounters with relish.
The 2002 World Cup was held in Japan and Korea following FIFA’s decision to reward Asia for their progression in football. Fuelled by their home support, the two host nations did well to win their respective groups and while Japan were subsequently knocked out by Turkey, South Korea progressed as far as the semi-finals under the studious guidance of Guus Hiddink. The Asian teams had finally made their mark on the world stage and they weren’t about to go back into their shells.
Japan and South Korea failed to replicate their form in the 2006 World Cup but came back in the tournament’s 2010 edition when both teams secured quarter-finals berths. Prior to this year's Olympic tournament, the best performance by an Asian team came in 1968 when Japan took home the bronze medal which remains the only medal Asia has ever won for football at the Olympics.
With Japan and South Korea both in the semi-finals, Asia is guaranteed to medal. The only other time an Asian side even reached the game to decide the winner of the bronze medal was when India finished fourth back in 1956.
South Korea and Japan have always been the two nations leading Asia's football renaissance with the Koreans qualifying for eight World Cups and the last seven Olympics, earning them the tag of being Asia's most successful national team. Japan are currently playing in their ninth Olympics.
The Australians, since drafted into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), have progressed steadily having qualified for the World Cups and even managing to reach the finals of the Asian Cup last year.
The Chinese national outfit is certainly a force to be reckoned with as well as they are steadily developing on the international stage with the sport being very popular in the country. Their massive population coupled with the ever-growing interest and investment in football makes it evident that their tremendous potential as a footballing nation will be fulfilled in the next decade or two.
|Olympics 2012 semi-finalists
South Korea's quarter-final against Great Britain went right down to the wire with the Koreans holding their nerve in the penalty shoot-out to emerge as victors after the score remained level following extra-time. In contrast, Japan cruised to a 3-0 victory over Egypt, proving that they could indeed find the back of the net.
The Koreans will now face Brazil who were put to the sword by a technically inferior Honduran side, coming away with a rattling 3-2 win against ten men. The Japanese will face Mexico who managed to beat a determined Senegal 4-2 in extra-time.
The Brazilians are feared for their fierce attack but the same cannot be said about their defence as it was unlocked on more than one occasion by lesser teams like Egypt and more recently, Honduras. South Korea will be alert to their vulnerability in defence and being accomplished in the attacking third, they will fancy their chances on the break.
The Koreans have been compact in defence and will look to be yet again. They blocked out a very good Great Britain side but will know that the Brazilians will come at them with far more firepower.
Japan versus Mexico should prove to be another tight encounter. The Mexicans are more of a free scoring entity while Japan are a well drilled, organized machine. If Mexico are to unlock a stubborn Japanese defence, they will look to Giovani dos Santos for the key. The Mexican has been an inspiration up front and has bagged 3 goals even though he only played one full game, which was the quarter-finals. The Japanese will look to Yuki Otsu to provide the ammunition in their attack.
Japan and South Korea have already stamped their authority on this tournament and regardless of what happens here on, they have succeeded in sending a firm warning to the rest of the world that Asia are ready to take their place among the footballing elite. Any further progression at this year's Olympics will only serve to emphasize that point.
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