The confetti has been swept away, the hangovers from the street parties have been slept off and now that the Asian teams for the 2014 World Cup have been decided, observers are fretting over slipping standards and how the sides will be able to compete with powerful rivals in Brazil.
Australia, Iran and South Korea all sealed qualification for Brazil this week, but in less than convincing fashion. They completed the four automatic qualifying berths from Asia. Japan had earlier sealed their place in much more impressive style and they look like the only realistic Asian threat to the big teams in Brazil.
Japan’s ability to mix it with the world’s best was shown at the FIFA Confederations Cup on Wednesday when they controlled play for long periods against Italy and led 2-0, before ultimately losing 4-3.
The performance was a terrific advertisement for Asian soccer, but the rest of the continent’s qualifiers have plenty of work to do, said Afshin Ghotbi, former Iran coach and currently head coach of J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse.
“Japan is head and shoulders above the other qualified teams, who are close together in standard,” said Ghotbi, who also had two spells as assistant coach with South Korea. “Japan apart, however, the standard of the top teams in Asia generally seems worse than 2010. Watching qualification matches, the quality is below the standard of the top international teams.”
Australia struggled until the last three games — snatching a draw in Japan, then winning at home against Jordan and Iraq — to take second place in Group B. The narrow win against a second-string Iraq clinched qualification and sparked wild celebrations, but it disguised a mediocre qualifying campaign in which coach Holger Osieck was long regarded as being one bad result away from the sack.
“Australia was patchy at best,” Fox Sports Australia chief commentator Simon Hill said. “For most of the campaign the team plodded through with some terrible lows, but found a bit of form just at the right time, the highlight being the disciplined display in Japan. Overall though, [the team deserves] no more than a bare pass mark.”
South Korea only clinched an eighth-straight World Cup berth on goal-difference from Uzbekistan after losing 1-0 at home to Iran in the final group game.
The headline in the country’s most popular newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, summed up the feeling in the country.
“We’ve qualified, but this is no time for champagne,” it read.
South Korea are currently without a coach after interim manager Choi Kang-hee stepped down. Choi’s tactics and selections were criticized in a roller-coaster campaign.
Iran managed just eight goals in eight games in the final round of qualification, half of which came at home to an already-eliminated Lebanon. Under coach Carlos Queiroz, the team edged their way unconvincingly to a fourth World Cup appearance, though the campaign represented progress after they failed to qualify for 2010.
Ghotbi said Iran need to develop the team with more rigorous preparation.
“Iran almost never plays big teams in friendly games, but this is something that needs to happen,” he said.
It is advice that applies to all of Asia’s teams.
“You can see that with Japan at the Confederations Cup. Japan rarely plays difficult games in difficult conditions. In the past few months, they have played Brazil twice and let seven goals in. When [South] Korea has played big European teams, they have let goals in. Brazil is very far and over the next 12 months there needs to be a detailed blueprint of preparation games in as close to conditions to Brazil as possible,” Ghotbi said. “It will be difficult, it will be winter in Brazil, the atmosphere is very different than what Asians are used to.”
Ghotbi was a member of South Korea’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup when the team reached the semi-finals on home soil under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.
“Hiddink did a great job in 2002 in taking national team to as many locations as possible and playing opponents with different organizational styles. You have to use FIFA dates intelligently,” he said.
While the big teams largely failed to inspire, there was some hope in the improving depth of competitiveness among Asia’s smaller nations.
In Group A, Qatar and Lebanon gave the big boys significant problems at times, while Uzbekistan only just missed out on direct qualification. In Group B, Jordan, Oman and Iraq all had their moments.
“The other Asian teams are catching up fast — and Australia has gone backwards,” Hill said. “Jordan, Iraq and Oman are all now very strong at home and increasingly they have lost their fear when traveling to Australia.”