The 2022 World Cup has, for the first time in its history, six representatives from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Hosts Qatar, the tournament’s only debutant, are joined by Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Australia (who while originally from Oceania, have been grouped with Asia since 2006).
While Qatar‘s 2-0 loss to Ecuador during the opening match of the tournament was the first by a host in the history of the World Cup, Iran were drubbed 6-2 by England and Australia‘s 4-1 loss to France 4-1 did not augur the most auspicious start for teams from the AFC region, the performances of Japan and Saudi Arabia have flipped the script.
“The stars have aligned. Argentina are a fantastic team, but this is football. Sometimes crazy things happen,” Herve Renard said following Saudi Arabia‘s win.
The Saudi Arabian win represents arguably one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history with many touting the Argentinians to win the tournament outright.
Lionel Messi‘s early goal from the penalty spot was overturned within five minutes by Al Shehri (48′) and Al Dawsari (53′). After that, they defended for their lives keeping Lionel Scaloni‘s team at arm’s length.
“I told Messi he wouldn’t win,” said Saudi Arabian defender Ali Albulayhi.
The Al-Hilal player was the great wall for a Saudi Arabia side ranked 51st in the FIFA rankings. Renard‘s side beating the two-time champions would be the first of two shocks that rocked the football world as Germany would soon find out.
The Japanese team copied the Saudi Arabia‘s modus operandi to the tee. They started a goal behind, courtesy of an Ilkay Gundogan penalty spot, and came back within eight minutes with goals from Ritsu Doan (75′) and Takuma Asano (83′), with both players ironically currently plying their craft in the German Bundesliga.
With Japan beating Germany and Spain also in the group, the Germans face the possibility of exiting a World Cup at the Group Stage for a second successive time. Just like against South Korea (2-0) during the World Cup in 2018, the Germans were beaten by a team from Asia.
“We are reaching the global standard and our maximum capacity from Asian football. When we conceded a goal, we kept going. We have to be persistent, tough to the end and seize our momentum,” said coach Hajime Moriyasu.
Ranked 24th by FIFA, Japan, want to repeat their Round of 16 appearance like they did at Russia in 2018.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia are dreaming of repeating their heroics from USA 1994. However, repeating the antics of South Korea, who in 2022, made it to the semi-final on home soil and represented the highest position any Asian team has achieved at the World Cup, remains a long way off at this stage at least.