After a four year wait, it is finally time for soccer’s most prestigious
competition — The World Cup. While everyone’s focus is on the competition’s European dominance amid the rise of powerful South American nations, Asian countries have finally begun to have a significant presence in the competition. This year, South Korea and Japan have some players to really look out for, with Asians finally having a real presence in Europe’s top five leagues. Judging the nations from their key players and their past, it’s impossible to say how far the teams will go in the coming days, as it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve shocked the world.
South Korea Key Players:
Kim Min Jae (S.S.C. Napoli)
Standing at 6 foot 4 and 190 pounds, “the monster” Kim Min Jae is possibly the most in form center back in Serie A at the moment. In only his second month in the league, he has been voted as the Serie A Player of the Month. While playing for Fenerbahçe, Kim was a key player in the Intercontinental Derby, where Kim earned the most passes and blocks in the game, earning him the Man of the Match award. Coming into the World Cup, Kim is in the form of his career, making his potential contributions definitely something to keep an eye out for in the tournament.
Son Heung Min (Tottenham Hotspur)
The captain of the South Korean national team, Son is the most prolific player on the team. Joint winner of the 21/22 Premier League Golden Boot, Son is possibly Asia’s best ever goal scorer. The Ballon D’or, an award that ranks the best soccer players based on their individual performances in the previous year, ranked Son at 11th. Though he is clearly an extraordinary individual player, it will be interesting to see if he can carry over his talents to the world’s biggest stage: the World Cup.
Japan Key Players:
Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Kamada is a very high output attacking midfielder for Frankfurt, who was able to get five goals and an assist in Frankfurt’s 21/22 Europa League campaign, which led Frankfurt to win the Europa League. In the Bundesliga this season, he has 9 goal contributions in 10 appearances, averaging 1.16 goal contributions per 90, which is an incredibly high output. To put that into perspective, Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne currently averages 1.14 goal contributions per 90, which is actually just under Ramada’s output. Though these statistics may not tell the whole story, it is undeniable that Kamada is a dangerous forward, which is why he may be an entertaining one to keep an eye on in the World Cup.
Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal F.C.)
Tomiyasu is an Arsenal defender who has proven his quality in many positions defensively. A starter for Arsenal last season, he played consistently until he suffered a calf injury. Recently, he has been fighting for a spot in the starting eleven, but he has played as a right and left back, as well as a center back for Japan. At 23 years of age, he is a young and versatile option for Japan who has proven himself in arguably Europe’s toughest league.
But how is the rest of the team?
South Korea and Japan both have a similar flaw — they are teams based around a select few individuals. For example, neither country has produced too many defending or goalkeeping talents, which puts pressure on the few talents they have to step up for the sake of the team. For South Korea’s team, especially, the attack relies almost solely on Son Heung Min, though he does have a strike partner in Hwang Hee Chan, another Premier League proven forward. On paper, it seems that both teams will have to rely on their superstars to get the job done. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be the first time that players like Son and Kamada have led the attack, as Kamada is currently Frankfurt’s top goalscorer and Son was last season’s top goal scorer in the Premier League.
How have the teams done historically?
One of the best World Cups for Asian countries as a whole happened to be when Japan and South Korea hosted it in 2002. That year, Japan and South Korea both made it out of the group stages, and though Japan was knocked out in the Round of 16, South Korea was able to knock out European giants like Italy and Spain, ultimately being knocked out by Germany and earning a fourth place finish. Looking at more recent history, Asian teams have shown that they are not to be underestimated. Germany may have won the 2014 World Cup, but when they went to the 2018 World Cup to do it again, they were stunned by South Korea. In the final game of the group stage, South Korea did the unthinkable, knocking out the reigning champions from the competition.
Though South Korea did not advance through the group stage, knocking out Germany sent a statement to the world — that Asian countries weren’t to be underestimated. That year, Japan actually managed to get past the group stage, losing narrowly to Belgium in a 3-2 loss. Nevertheless, in the 2018 World Cup, both countries had considerable campaigns in the World Cup, but the question is, what can they do this year?
Both teams are definitely ones to watch, because they both have the potential to stun the world. They have done it before, but the question is can they do it again? Can South Korea get another colossal victory to escape the group stage? Can Japan get one to get one, too? Both teams, on paper, should be able to get third place, but can they sneak a surprise win to get second and move on? With both teams so reliant on a select few players, we will see if the players can withstand the pressure and shine, or if they’ll be predictable and ineffective. At the age of 30, this might be Son’s last real attempt to do something at the World Cup, and since he is going into the new season in the form of his life, it will be interesting to see if he can push himself to new heights. But regardless of how either team does, they both have young talents who can impress in another four years, when they should be at their peak performance.
Soccer in Asia hasn’t always been something to note, but progress is being made — starting with Cha Bum-Kun’s breakout into the Bundesliga, others have made progress, like Park Ji-Sung’s pivotal role in the legendary Ferguson Manchester United. Recently, Heung Min Son has won individual plaudits for his efforts, earning the highest ranking for an Asian in the prestigious Ballon D’or as well as being the first Asian player to earn the Premier League Golden Boot, but now, it’s time for the younger generation to go further, to earn more than what others did before them. The World Cup, as always, is an opportunity, but the question now is will these young players respond to it?