The Chinese may have racked up the most gold medals at the last summer Olympics, but Asians haven’t had anywhere near the same impact at the World Cup. Sure, when South Korea and Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, Japan managed a second-round showing. Far more spectacularly, the Koreans, under the tutelage of Guus Hiddink, slayed Portugal, Italy and Spain to reach the semifinals. But the last World Cup was a wash for Asia. Japan emerged from the 2006 World Cup with nary a win. South Korea and Saudi Arabia also failed to secure second-round berths. Iran was sent packing after just two games. So the scorelines of South Korea (2-0 against Greece) and Japan (1-0 against Cameroon) in their first World Cup matches in South Africa have come as a very pleasant surprise for the world’s most-populous continent.
Yes, you can argue that it wasn’t the Japanese and South Koreans winning as much as the Cameroonians and Greeks flubbing it. Whatever. The Samurai Blue got to celebrate their first World Cup win eight years to the day of their last one. And the Taeguk Warriors proved that a young team that started only two veterans from the 2002 glory days could be a contender. Next up for Asia: North Korea vs. Brazil. As my colleague Ishaan points out, you can’t get a more lopsided match-up than the Hermit Kingdom tackling the Samba Nation. Although a North Korean squad managed to knock out the Italians back in 1966 to reach the quarterfinals — for a fascinating documentary on that historic North Korean performance, check out The Game of Their Lives — the chances of a repeat run are hampered by, among other things, North Korea’s slot in the Group of Death with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. Whatever happens, though, at least Asia has already performed respectably in South Africa. The ghosts of 2006 have been exorcised.