The first round of the World Cup is over and the second round is about to start. But how can we grade the Asian teams in Russia after the group stages?
SAUDI ARABIA: C-
It could have been much, much worse for Saudi Arabia and for a while it looked as if it might be after the nightmare of their 5-0 opening game thrashing to hosts Russia.
The Green Falcons had few expectations going into a first World Cup since 2006 and few became zero after events in Moscow on June 14. But the team rallied and improved to lose narrowly to Uruguay and then pick up a deserved 2-1 win over Egypt on Monday on a sticky evening in Volgograd. Saudi Arabia left with a smile on their faces after recovering respect and honour.
After the loss to Russia there was huge criticism back home and from some very senior sporting figures. At the press conference after the game, the question was asked to coach Juan Antonio Pizzi and to other journalists – could the coach survive the night, short as it is in Moscow in June? By the end, he was getting a contract extension to the end of the Asian Cup next January. The team turned a bad situation around.
The Socceroos were the only Asian nation that failed to win in Russia. Yet, despite that, there was a sense that the team deserved a little more for their efforts than one measly point from what was a tough group involving France, Denmark and Peru.
Fans will look back at the 1-1 draw against Denmark as the pivotal result. Had there been a little more quality in the final third then Australia would have taken all three points against a beatable opponent. That would have changed the entire complexion of the final game equations and things could have been very different indeed.
As it was, the team were competitive in all three games but not quite good enough.
SOUTH KOREA: C+
It was the worst of times and it was the best of times. Two disappointing and narrow defeats against Sweden and Mexico meant that Asia’s most successful World Cup team were in danger of the nightmare of zero points and the same amount of positives.
That they were followed by a glorious and never-to-be-forgotten win against defending champions Germany put everything in a whole new light. It was the result and performance of the tournament so far and made headlines around the world.
Yet it highlighted the wastefulness of the opening two losses with silly mistakes making the difference albeit in generally uninspiring performances. Beating Germany to go to the second round (and had Mexico beaten Sweden instead of losing 3-0 that would have been the case) would have been magical. As it was, it was merely special.
Japan made it through to the second round by the narrowest of margins but that matters little – once you are through, you are through. In the second half against Colombia and for much of the Senegal game, they showed what they could do. An intelligent passing game was on display and this was a team growing in confidence after a good start.
There was some luck; the early penalty and red card for Colombia, the best team in the group and then the fact that playing top seeds Poland in the final game was ideal as the Europeans had been poor and already eliminated.
The Samurai Blue still lost but got through instead of Senegal because they had received fewer yellow cards. It was not the ideal way to progress but it will be forgotten as soon as the second round match with Belgium starts.
Iran were in a very tough group but got the same number of points as Japan and that is a source of pride and frustration. The world saw what Asia has known for some time; this is a team with talent, discipline and plenty more besides.
They beat a very good Morocco team, lost 1-0 to Spain to an unlucky goal and then drew 1-1 with Portugal in an epic battle. Four points is sometimes enough, sometimes not. On this occasion, it wasn’t but it was an impressive return.
Nobody outside Asia will be underestimating Iran again. Has they been in a different group, Group A for example, then they surely would have gone through to the second round. As it was, Team Melli were only a few inches away from Mehdi Taremi, still one of the most under-rated players in Asia, putting them into the next stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo will not forget this game in a hurry and all will remember just how good Iran were.