SEOUL, South Korea — The most recent soccer game between South Korea and Japan ended in a diplomatic row after midfielder Park Jong-woo held up a banner referring to a group of islands that are claimed by both countries located in a body of water whose name they also argue over.
There is something, however, that even South Korea and Japan can agree on. The time when they were just Asian powerhouses is coming to an end. These two continental rivals are slowly becoming genuine global forces.
This has been a summer that has seen the old soccer order shaken up, at least a little. On a sunny London afternoon in August, Mexico defeated the mighty Brazil to take the Olympic gold medal. The celebrations lasted exactly a week, until the United States rained on that parade by winning in the Azteca Stadium for the first time.
And then there were two Asian teams in the semifinals of a major soccer tournament. These were no lucky runs to the last four; the youngsters were matching the best in the world. Japan outclassed the highly favored Spanish in the opening game to win, 1-0, while South Korea knocked out host Britain in the quarterfinal.
The under-23 teams were not only suggesting a bright future but continuing the good work performed by the seniors in recent years. Both the Taeguk Warriors and the Blue Samurai have made the knockout stages in two of the last three World Cups, have an increasing number of young players in the big European leagues and are continuing to produce more talent.
South Korea Coach Hong Myong-bo, captain of the 2002 team that made the semifinals, predicted good things ahead after his team defeated Japan, 2-0, to take the bronze medal.“”The players on the Olympic team have gained so much experience on the international stage, and they will be huge asset for the future of the Korean football, especially during the Brazil World Cup,” he said.
Japan may have returned to Tokyo empty-handed but there will be more chances for success. From the 2011 Asian Cup triumph to the 2014 World Cup and beyond, Alberto Zaccheroni has a settled team with stars like Shinji Kagawa — now a Manchester United player — and Keisuke Honda, with a host of youngsters bubbling under the surface ready to challenge for their starting spots.
There is a similar stability in the J-League, as well-organized a competition as you will find anywhere. Japan is now seeing the benefits of a top-class youth development system that was put into place in the early ’90s. As with their K-League counterparts, Japanese clubs are hardly poor, but there are no lavish contracts for well-known foreign players.
This is the preserve of United Arab Emirates, Qatar and China — all three are desperate simply to qualify for the World Cup. Here in Seoul and in Tokyo that is no longer the question. Now they talk of how far they can go and when an Asian team will be in the last four of a World Cup.
Even after recent years, many around the world would not think that possible. But it is no longer laughable — things have changed. Ahead of the 2010 edition, Takashi Okada, then the Japan coach, publicly spoke of a semifinal finish. The reaction was one of incredulity abroad and at home. The sneer of the Tokyo news media, never a fan of the man, grew with every warm-up defeat, and even the players were uncomfortable.
Yet Japan was denied a place in the quarterfinal by only a penalty shootout. South Korea also made it out of the group to be eliminated by a talented Uruguay team in a game that could have gone either way.
Since then, young players such as Honda and Kagawa have become household names. Yuto Nagatomo is now with Inter Milan and Atusto Uchida is at Schalke. Young stars of the Olympic team like Hiroki Sakai, Takashi Usami, Yuki Otsu and Hiroshi Kiyotake are not yet regulars in the senior teams but all will play next season in the Bundesliga.
South Korea has not been quite as busy, but the Olympic team had six players already in the big leagues of Europe and five well-established in the senior team. Park Ji-sung may have left Manchester United for Queens Park Rangers, but Ki Sung-yeung, already with 45 appearances for the senior team at age 23, has just joined the Premier League team Swansea City for a fee of $10 million. About half that amount took Kim Bo-kyoung to Cardiff City, while young defender Yoon Suk-young has been linked to Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
There is a debate about whether some of these players are heading overseas too early, but the exodus leaves gaps for even younger players to test themselves at a good level – and the cycle continues. If China can actually get its act together, then East Asia — helped by its economic might and population base — is going to become a powerful bloc in the world of soccer.
Work must still be done. Neither South Korea nor Japan has been able to produce the kind of top-class goalscorers who enable teams to kill games when they are dominating or steal undeserved victories when they are not. This will come, and already going is the overestimation of European and South American opposition.
These Asian rivals now know they belong on the world stage in soccer terms, and maybe the day when they meet in the semifinal of the World Cup is not that far away. That really would be a proud moment for the whole of Asia. Even Japan and South Korea would agree with that.
John Duerden is the editor of Kick Off Asia.