Think Asian football, think South Korea and Japan – that’s the automatic reaction for many fans around the world.
These two nations send players to big European leagues and regularly represent the continent at the World Cup. And they do so with increasing success. In the past three tournaments, both have progressed past the group stage on two occasions.
And both are now preparing in earnest for the 2014 tournament though the way they qualified was rather different.
We had the chances to win but in the end, we just couldn’t get the goal. We have to improve in our attacking and combination play… but our organisation and communication have improved already
Japan never looked in any danger of not going to Brazil thanks to collecting ten points from the first four games in the final stage. Korea also started well but were soon stumbling. In the end, the Taeguk Warriors made it eight World Cups in a row thanks to a goal difference advantage of just one.
Coach Choi Kang-hee stepped down the day after qualification ended, as he always said he would. The football was also predictable. Plodding and direct, it did the job - just - but something more is needed if Korea are going to make it an impressive third appearance in the knockout stage in four attempts.
That is the task entrusted to new coach Hong Myong-bo. The 44-year-old played in four World Cups, was captain of the 2002 semifinal-reaching team and, as coach, steered the U23 side to bronze at the 2012 Olympics. It’s fair to say he is something of a hero in his homeland.
The two teams met in the final match of the 2013 East Asian Cup in front of almost 50,000 fans at Seoul Olympic Stadium on July 28. It was a highly-charged affair. Korea were on top for much of the match but struggled in the final third.
"The performance was good but the result was not satisfactory,” captain Ha Dae-sung told Al Jazeera.
“We had the chances to win but in the end, we just couldn’t get the goal. We have to improve in our attacking and combination play... but our organisation and communication have improved already.”
It’s true but the challenge for Korea, assuming that the defence continues to improve, is to find a goalscorer.
It’s easier said than done. It is some time since the Taeguk warriors had one of those. In the three games in July - when the European stars were absent - the K-League based goalgetters did not impress with chance after chance going begging.
When Hong can field a fill-strength team, Son Heung-min may be the best hope. The highly-rated 20 year-old joined Bayer Leverkusen in the summer for $15 million from Hamburg but the fleet-footed attacker may not be at his best in the central striking role.
It used to belong to Park Chu-young but since the ex-Monaco marksman joined Arsenal in August 2011, his career has stalled. At the moment, there are not many other options.
Japan have had the same problem for years. As the Asian champions have improved, they have created an increasing number of chances against all manner of opposition but the challenge has been converting those into actual goals.
The midfield was silky, smooth and sophisticated and could control possession with the best of them but all too often, fans were left frustrated.
| Yoichiro Kakitani scored twice in the final and was competition's top scorer [AP]
There are signs that this may be changing. At the East Asian Cup with stars like Honda and Kagawa busy with their European clubs, the standout performer was Yoichiro Kakitani who played two games and scored three goals when he was used as a central striker.
He plays a little deeper for club Cerezo Osaka but has scored enough goals this season to catch the eye of coach Alberto Zaccheroni. The 23 year-old had little problem in carrying on domestic form onto the international stage.
The manner in which he scored in Seoul has only intensified reports of interest from the Bundesliga and it is only a manner of time before he heads west. Whether he does so before Brazil 2014, while he is still relatively unknown in Europe, or after, when he may very well not be, remains to be seen.
For the Samurai Blue, a first ever triumph at the East Asian Cup was secondary to the fact that it ended a poor run of results. Prior to the opening match against China, just one win in the previous seven games had the pressure on coach Zaccheroni for the first time. Even worse were the three defeats at the Confederations Cup, a June tournament that was supposed to show how strong Japanese football was.
Eight goals in the three games in Korea was a really shot in the arm for the team, though six goals conceded suggests that there is still work to do in defence. What was also promising was the win over Korea in Seoul.
In a high-tempo, high-intensity affair, Japan withstood some serious pressure from the hosts and fought for everything. There was not much of the usual pretty Japanese football that Asian fans have become used to. It was an almost ugly win and all the sweeter for it.
There is still much to do before Brazil but for both Japan and South Korea, Asia’s two World Cup stalwarts, steps were taken at the East Asian Cup.