If you need some king of clear, unambiguous sign that Asian soccer continues to improve, consider the World Cup qualifying campaigns of South Korea, Australia, and North Korea — three qualifiers for 2010’s World Cup:
- South Korea’s doing well enough in the tournament’s fourth and final round (2-1-1 through four matches), though it’s a slow start for a team that went 4-0-4 during 2010’s final qualifying round.
- Australia, while second in Group B, has only won one of their four final round matches, scoring only four goals in as many games.
- Meanwhile, North Korea didn’t even make the final, 10-team round.
Japan, on the other hand (the region’s other qualifier for South Africa), appears to be getting stronger. After today’s 2-1 win in Oman, the Japanese have 13 points from a possible 15. Holding an eight-point lead with three games left in their tournament, Japan’s almost assured a fifth trip to the World Cup.
The win was more meaningful than it looked. Oman may never be a household name, but in World Cup qualifying, they’ve been tough. Their record is now 2-2-1, their only losses coming at the sword of the Blue Samurai (despite playing in a group with Australia and Iraq).
Coming into today’s game, Paul Le Guen’s side had five points in their last three games. Though most of his players play domestically, they have two noted talents making their money beyond the Omani league: Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi and Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia) striker Amad Al-Hosni. Particularly at home — 4860 miles from Tokyo — they can be formidable.
Australia learned that lesson earlier in qualifying. In June, the Socceroos showed up in Muscat expected to win only to be shutout by Al-Habsi. The Aussies won a point, Mark Schwarzer keeping his own clean sheet, but with Oman coming off a lopsided 3-0 loss in Japan, the result provided a huge confidence boost.
On Wednesday, Oman was just as resilient. The match looked destined to end in a 1-1 draw, Oman having pulled back an early Japan lead while Al-Habsi had kept the Japanese at arms’ length. Then, just before full time, Shinji Okazaki converted on a set piece to give the confederation champions their win.
The difference between Japan and Australia’s results in Muscat exemplifies Japan’s climb. While the Japanese have improved since we saw them in South Africa, Australia has regressed. The rest of the qualifying group (Iraq, Oman, Jordan) started in too big a whole to compete with the Samurai Blue.
Whether Japan’s advantage applies to the rest of Asia — specifically, South Korea — remains to be seen. With the Koreans in Group A and the next Asian Cup not scheduled until 2015, it may be a while before we see the Japanese meat the region’s other power.
Other results – AFC qualifying
Iraq 1-0 Jordan – Iraq got their first win of the tournament, another “home” game staged in Doha. Against Group B’s most generous defense, Iraq needed 85 minutes before 19-year-old Hammadi Ahmad scored from just outside the penalty area, giving Zico’s team their first win of the tournament.
Qatar 1-0 Lebanon – Against a Lebanon side making their first appearance at this stage of the tournament, Qatar got what amounted to a must-win. Naturalized Uruguayan Sebastián Soria scored in the 75th minute to pull Qatar out of last place, vaulting them within one point of group-leading … Uzbekistan?
Iran 0-1 Uzbekistan – A huge win for Uzbekis, and not because it pushed them into first place. With South Korea holding a match in hand, that status will likely change, but after a devastating home loss to Iran that opened final round qualifying, Uzbekistan got revenge. A late goal from veteran Ulugbek Bakayev was only the second goal Carlos Quieroz’s side has given up in five games.