Imagining the Impact of an Asian Team's World Cup Win
An Asian side winning the World Cup would have a monumental impact on the global game.
South America and Europe have thus far enjoyed a duopoly when it comes to winning the World Cup, so a triumph for either continent is always the most likely outcome in future editions and would do nothing to alter the current status quo.
The implications of the United States or an African nation becoming world champion would be huge and has already been adeptly analysed by my Bleacher Report colleagues Joe Tansey and Ed Dove respectively.
Nonetheless, for an Asian team to achieve the feat would potentially bring about a greater seismic shift in football than victory by a team from any other confederation.
Here I'll take a look at Asia's past record in the tournament, discuss who the front-runners to break the continent's World Cup drought are and speculate as to the consequences of such a win.
Asia's involvement in the FIFA World Cup got off to an inauspicious start in 1938, when the Dutch East Indies, the continent's first representative in the tournament, were hammered 6-0 by Hungary and eliminated after one game.
South Korea's semi-final appearance at the 2002 version of the competition, which they co-hosted with Japan, remains the benchmark for Asian teams at the World Cup. The Taeguk Warriors rode their luck along the way, but they showed showed plenty of spirit in downing Italy in the first knockout phase and Spain in the quarter-final before losing 1-0 to Germany in the semi-final.
The next best performance from the South Koreans came in 2010 when they made it out of the group phase, only to be defeated 2-1 by Uruguay in their round of 16 game.
At the 1966 World Cup in England, North Korea famously upset Italy 1-0 in the group stage to qualify for the quarter-final, where they went down swinging, losing 5-3 to Eusebio's Portugal.
Japan, meanwhile, made the round of 16 in 2002 and 2010. In the latest tournament they defeated both Cameroon and Denmark in the group stage before going down on penalties to Paraguay. Playing on home turf if 2002, the Samurai Blue managed to top their group but fell to Turkey in the first sudden-death round.
In 1994, Saudi Arabia defeated Morocco and Belgium to sneak into the second round, where they were knocked out by a strong Swedish side.
Australia, who qualified for the 2006 World Cup as part of the Oceania confederation before switching to Asia, impressed in that tournament (guided by South Korea's 2002 coach Guus Hiddink) by progressing from a tough group containing Brazil, Japan and Croatia before going down to eventual champions Italy in controversial circumstances in the round of 16.
In total, the entire Asian confederation has only managed 16 wins in World Cup finals (South Korea 6, Japan 4, Saudi Arabia 2, Australia 2, North Korea 1, Iran 1), which makes it clear there is some way to go before we can realistically predict that a team from the continent will win the whole thing.
South Korea's run to within two wins of the title in 2002, however, demonstrates that nothing is impossible when all the elements fall into place.
When will an Asian side win the World Cup?
Who Can Win a World Cup for Asia, and When?
The standout candidate to win Asia's first World Cup is Japan, who are not only the highest-ranked nation in the region currently but show all the hallmarks of a side on the up.
Japan's FIFA ranking of 42, though, is one of many reminders that we should not expect the breakthrough tournament win to come in Brazil 2014, or perhaps any time soon.
The East Asian nation is producing increasingly better players technically, however, more and more of whom are now making their way to Europe to play in the world's strongest leagues.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashimi, who plies his trade in the Belgian league with Standard Liege, recently explained to FIFA.com why this is good news for Japanese football:
Picking up European experience gives a player something different. For me personally in my career, it’s been fundamental.
But I also think that the standard of the players in the Japanese league is improving. In general, Japanese football is on the up, with better players and better preparation.
An open and competitive J-League provides the catalyst for the Blue Samurai to grow in strength.
For the same reason, traditional Asian powerhouse South Korea can also be optimistic about future success. The K-League has accounted for three of the past four winners of the Asian Champions League and continues to attract foreign talent and produce quality local players.
The South Korean national team may be at a relatively low ebb at the moment, having dropped to 58 in the FIFA rankings, but their U-20 side impressed at the recent World Cup in Turkey, advancing to the quarter-finals.
The Socceroos are another side struggling to maintain the high standards of a recent golden generation, but a confirmed third straight appearance at the World Cup will help boost the sport's profile further in that country.
The A-League is also going from strength to strength, which should result in a new crop of gifted youngsters emerging over the next few years, with the likes of Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen) and Tom Rogic (Celtic) at the vanguard.
Iraq can point to their superb showing at the U-20 World Cup, where they reached the final four, as a highly positive sign for the future, while Iran will look to build on their 2014 World Cup qualification and Jordan will be hoping to do the same if they can make it through their intercontinental playoff.
Realistically, Japan are the only Asian side who could be harboring any vague hopes of going all the way in 2018, but beyond that there is plenty of scope for other Asian nations to make up ground on the big guns from South America and Europe.
What Would a World Cup Win Mean for Asia?
The first and most telling impact of an Asian nation claiming the World Cup would be to establish football as the undisputed No. 1 sport in the world's most populous continent.
The sporting landscape throughout Asia is complex. Football must compete for popularity with the likes of basketball, table tennis and badminton in China, baseball in South Korea and Japan, cricket in India and a host of other codes in Australia.
There are signs, though, that there is an underswell of support for football that would become a tidal wave if a team from the region conquered the world.
The boyband-like hysteria that envelopes high-profile sides when they tour Asia indicates that fans there are eager to embrace the world game, as do the huge crowds who attend preseason friendlies throughout the continent, along with other factors such as t-shirt sales.
An Asian world champion and the subsequent popularity explosion of football would result in the confederation becoming a primary financial powerbroker in the sport, which in turn would grease many more wheels.
Pressure could be applied to FIFA to allow more Asian teams into the World Cup finals, for example, or to host the tournament more often.
Domestic leagues like China and Japan's, already capable of attracting big-name foreign starts, would only become more desirable destinations for players, with an increase in sponsorship dollars and crowds.
In footballing terms, a World Cup final win for South Korea, say, would infuse teams such as Japan and Australia with a burning desire to match their rival's achievement.
It would also prove to countries from the CONCACAF, CAF and OAC confederations that overturning the traditional hegemony is possible to accomplish, while laying a blueprint for them to do it.
In short, if a nation from the Asian confederation is able to win the World Cup, it would change the landscape of the sport forever.
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