WORLD CUP: Exuberant Asian teams light up better-than-usual group stage

Three Asian teams managed to qualify for the last-16 of the 2022 World Cup: (from left) Japan, South Korea and Australia. (PHOTOS: Reuters)
Three Asian teams managed to qualify for the last-16 of the 2022 World Cup: (from left) Japan, South Korea and Australia. (PHOTOS: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Two weeks, 48 matches, 16 teams left. The opening group stage of the FIFA World Cup Finals always throws up intense drama and compelling storylines as the 32 teams battle to advance into the knockout rounds.

What are the takeaways from the first two weeks of Qatar 2022? Here are four:

1. Asian teams make their indelible mark

The last time Asia hosted the World Cup in 2002, co-hosts South Korea were the shining stars as they powered their way to a fourth-place finish. That largely forgettable tournament left the football world with lasting images of thousands of red-shirted Korean fans cheering in unison as Ahn Jung-hwan and Co stunned the likes of Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Fast forward 20 years, and Asia is leaving another lasting mark on the World Cup. This time, it is not just about one team. In fact, there are three, as Japan, South Korea and Australia (by their affiliation to the Asian Football Confederation) made it past the group stage - the first time so many Asian teams advanced.

And they did it in such thrilling, dramatic fashion that it would take another monumental twist in the tale for this World Cup to be remembered otherwise - Japan with their double scalp of former champions Germany and Spain; South Korea with their extraordinarily tense wait for confirmation of their last-16 place; and Australia's with their grit in grinding out the results to get them out of a tough group.

For so long, Asian teams were an afterthought in the World Cup, as European and South American teams run rings around them. Hopefully, this will mark the start of these teams being thought of as respectable opponents not to be underestimated.

2. Standards getting closer

Tied to the successes of the Asian teams is the fact that matches between supposed contenders and minnows are becoming far more competitive than before.

Save for the odd beatdowns (Spain thrashing Costa Rica 7-0, England routing Iran 6-2), games which tournament favourites were tipped would win easily became tough slogs.

The surprise results duly came in thick and fast - besides the Asian teams' exploits, African sides such as Tunisia (1-0 against France), Morocco (2-0 against Belgium) and Cameroon (1-0 against Brazil) notched pleasing wins against top sides too.

This can only be good for the World Cup, if teams which are non-traditional powerhouses provide stiff tests for the contenders. Nobody wants to see too many one-sided blowouts, and everyone hopes for an unfancied side to have their moments of spotlight at the World Cup.

Long may this trend continue.

3. 32-team format works best

With 32 teams divided into eight groups of four, it works out nicely that only the top two teams advance out of each group into the round of 16.

There is no need to pick the best third-placed teams, nor do you need any convoluted pathways to work out the last-16 line-up - it's a straightforward group winner vs group runner-up match-up.

Which makes the impending change by FIFA to make the World Cup Finals a 48-team tournament all the more infuriating.

The football world governing body is now racking their brains over the right format for the expanded group stage: will it be in 16 groups of three teams, or 12 groups of four? In either way, the matches would bloat to possibly a 104-game World Cup tournament - 40 more than Qatar 2022.

Can fans stomach 40 more matches? Already, this group stage meant that they had to plod through four matches a day for the past two weeks. At which point would fans be turned off by the sheer numbers?

Why fix something that isn't broke?

Belgium's Kevin de Bruyne reacts in disbelief during the 2022 World Cup match against Croatia.
Belgium's Kevin de Bruyne reacts in disbelief during the 2022 World Cup match against Croatia. (PHOTO: Visionhaus/Getty Images) (Visionhaus via Getty Images)

4. The death of the playmaking talent?

It is becoming increasingly evident that World Cup teams will struggle if they rely on one single exceptional player to set the tone, create chances and score the vital goals. This group stage is further proof of this trend.

Belgium are the clearest example, as playmaker Kevin de Bruyne looked jaded from the word go, and performed far below the level he regularly reaches with Manchester City. With his other teammates unable to step up, the No.2-ranked team in the FIFA world rankings crumbled and failed to advance.

South Korea nearly followed them out of the World Cup, as Tottenham star Son Heung-min also looked a couple of steps slower than his usual self as he seemed weighed down by the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation.

It was fortunate that he was able to find the perfect pass right at the death for his teammate Hwang Hee-chan to score the decisive goal to advance. Can he be relied on again in the last-16?

And that's the whole point: putting all the onus on a single player is risky in a tournament where defences can easily nullify a single threat. Teams which offer a wide range of playmaking and scoring threats - such as France, England and Spain - look much better equipped to last the distance.

The era of singular talents - the likes of Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff - is well and truly over. Sad as it is, it also means the collective unit can achieve far greater things - and that bodes well for the less-fancied teams, who know they can cause an upset or two if they execute their game plans properly.

So, long live the team. Until perhaps the next Maradona comes along.

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