Australia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea will be flying the Asian Football Confederation flag, with New Zealand enjoying their first outing at the World Cup since 1982 after qualifying via a play-off.
The Socceroos, whose coach Pim Verbeek will quit after the tournament, were the region’s standout performers in Germany 2006, finally beaten 1-0 in the last-16 by eventual champions Italy. This time, Verbeek’s battle-hardened and experienced team are pitted against three-time champions Germany, Ghana and Serbia. Everton’s talismanic Tim Cahill is the standout player with Lucas Neill dominating the back four and Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer between the posts.
Minnows New Zealand face an equally tough task and risk becoming the tournament’s whipping boys. They take on defending champions Italy and also face Slovakia and Paraguay. Coach Ricki Herbert, who played for New Zealand the only other time they made the finals, in 1982, acknowledged the other teams in their group would see them as an opportunity to grab three points.
The ‘Blue Samurais’
Japan also have high hopes, with coach Takeshi Okada repeatedly insisting they can make the last four, a goal that has been ridiculed at home with Cameroon, the Netherlands and Denmark awaiting them in the group phase.
“I have not changed my goal at all,” said Okada after announcing his squad. “With these 23 players, I believe we can make it happen.”
The country’s biggest star is former Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura while young midfielder Keisuke Honda, now at CSKA Moscow, is another gifted left-footer. Leading from the back will be defensive rock and captain Yuji Nakazawa who, with over 90 senior appearances, is one of Japan’s most capped players of all time.
North Korea play their first World Cup since their heroic run at the 1966 tournament where they sprung one of the greatest shocks in history by beating Italy. This time few give them any chance of making the knockout rounds. Awaiting them are not just favourites Brazil but Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast and Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portuguese team-mates.
South Korea, in their eighth World Cup, made it to the semi-finals in 2002 on home turf but struggled in Germany four years ago where they failed to get beyond the group stages.
The Taeguk Warriors are in Group B alongside Argentina, Greece and Nigeria and will be relying heavily on Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung and Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong to lead by example.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 3rd, 2010.
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