Big names must fire for big three when World Cup kicks off
South Korea, Japan and Australia will be delighted to get out of their groups and into the knockout stages
The 2014 soccer World Cup still casts a shadow over the national teams of South Korea, Japan and Australia and if these regional giants are going to have a better time at the 2018 tournament, which kicks off next month in Russia, their big names will have to perform.
Son Heung-min, Keisuke Honda and Tim Cahill all played four years ago as the three nations collected a combined total of just two points. The goal this time is the same: to finish in the top two of their four-team groups and progress into the knockout stage and the round of 16. Anything more would be a bonus.
Korean hopes of success at a ninth successive World Cup will rest on the slim shoulders of Son, who scored 18 goals for English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in the season that has just finished. Son, 25, helped the team into third place in the league and into the latter stages of the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League.
To do the same for Korea will not be easy. First, the group is tough with Sweden, Mexico and defending champions and world No 1 Germany. Korea, whose FIFA ranking of 61 in the world is significantly higher than the combined total of the other three, are the outsiders.
If Son is the biggest star, then Kwon Chang-hoon was closing the gap in second. Kwon, 23, scored 11 goals from midfield in the top tier of French soccer with Dijon.
While Son’s form dipped later in the season, Kwon was getting better and better, but with 14 minutes remaining in the final game on May 19, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and his World Cup dreams were over. It is a major blow for South Korea.
Coach Shin Tae-yong was appointed in July 2017 to try and save a dismal qualification campaign, which he did, just. Now his focus is getting the best out of Son, as well as sorting out the team’s chronic defensive issues.
If he can do that there is a chance. especially if 20-year-old “wildcard” Lee Seung-woo can show some of the play that earned him the nickname of “The Korean Messi” as a Barcelona youth player.
Low expectations have removed plenty of the usual pressure but it will be a surprise if the Taeguk Warriors extend their Russian stay into July.
As for Japan, they are just as desperate to perform in Russia and this was demonstrated by the firing of coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April, two months before the tournament was due to start. This was an uncharacteristic show of jitters from the usually staid Japan FA.
The Bosnian, appointed in 2015, took the team through qualification with a game to spare but the feisty character never looked quite comfortable in the Tokyo hotseat.
Results in the 10 games since the Russian deal was sealed brought just three wins – against China, New Zealand and North Korea – and a 4-1 home loss to South Korea in December increased the pressure. As poor results continued in 2018, the Japan FA took soundings from senior players and pulled the plug, citing communication and trust issues.
Halilhodzic, who had been happy to drop the big stars such as Honda and the twin Shinjis of Kagawa and Okazaki, based in Germany and England respectively, is suing the federation.
Akira Nishino, 63, is an old safe pair of hands and is the short-term replacement as the country’s FA boss Kozo Tashima talked of a return to a Japanese philosophy. The former Gamba Osaka coach is likely to restore the big names to their former status in the team and there will be fewer opportunities for younger players.
Group H looks to be wide open with Colombia, Senegal and Poland. The Samurai Blue could finish first or fourth but to achieve the former, they need a good start. Japan ended the last World Cup with a 4-1 loss to Colombia, and revenge in the opening game against the South Americans would be welcome.
Australia are also coming to terms with a new coach. Ange Postecoglou took the job in 2013 and guided the team to the 2015 Asian Cup and through qualification for 2018, playing an open and expansive game. Yet Postecoglou resigned last year for reasons that are still not completely clear.
It took the federation until February to appoint a replacement and it came in the form of a coach almost the opposite of the long-term visionary Postecoglou. Bert van Marwijk is known as a pragmatic leader and being on a short-term contract until the end of the tournament is only going to increase the focus on the here and now.
The Dutchman, who led the Netherlands to the final in 2010, was always going to reply on Cahill, despite the misgivings of some fans. The forward, who has scored at the last three World Cups, has dragged the Socceroos out of trouble repeatedly in the past.
Now, however, he is 38 and has played just around 90 minutes in 2018 for Millwall in England’s second tier. No Aussie player has been as inactive this year, but if the team need a goal, then the old warhorse will be summoned.
If he does not produce then the criticism, already there, at the omission of Scottish-based striker Jamie Maclaren will intensify. Regardless, English Premier League stars Aaron Mooy, a midfielder with Huddersfield Town, and Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan will have to be at their best.
The group is tough but passable. If the Socceroos can get anything from an opening game against a strong France team, that will be a huge bonus. Subsequent ties with Denmark and Peru will be the ones that decide whether Australia can repeat their 2006 success and reach the last 16. This time, at least, one of the three has to.