Why We’re Watching Japan and South Korea at the World Cup

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Why We’re Watching Japan and South Korea at the World Cup

The performances of the Japanese and South Korean men’s national teams at the 2022 FIFA World Cup have embodied the stories we love to hear and watch. 

Why We’re Watching Japan and South Korea at the World Cup

Japan players celebrate after defeating Spain 2-1 after the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Spain, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

There are common storylines that appear across sport, from the realized dreams of underdogs, to the thrilling shock of comebacks; from the emotions that accompany representing one’s country, to the concrete evidence of progress in the national development of sport. At the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, these stories have manifested in the trajectories of two teams: Japan and South Korea. 

The Dreams of Underdogs

Underdogs have been front and center at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The group stage matches that followed the late November kick-off have yielded unexpected results, with teams like Morocco and Australia defeating the strong European squads Belgium and Denmark. Three of the most impressive defeats, however, came at the hands of the Japanese and South Korean national teams. 

Before arriving in Doha, both Japan and South Korea had landed themselves in noticeably difficult groups. Japan would be battling in the “group of death” against previous winners Spain and Germany, alongside the not-to-be-underestimated Costa Rica. South Korea drew former World Cup winner Uruguay, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and Ghana. By all expectations and based on rankings, both Japan (ranked 24th) and South Korea (ranked 28th) stood poised to finish third in their respective groups, likely to be bested by Spain (ranked at 7th) Portugal (9th), Germany (11th), and Uruguay (14th). 

This set the stage for the sorts of stories we love to see: Japanese players flooding the pitch after upsetting Germany in their first World Cup match. South Korean captain, Son Heung-min, breaking into tears at the final whistle of his team’s 2-1 win against Portugal, putting it within reach of the Round of 16. The South Korean team, huddled around a single phone in the middle of the pitch, erupting with joy at the end result of the Ghana vs. Uruguay group stage match, which catapulted them into the Round of 16. 

We watch underdogs because their triumphs are the things of dreams rather than expectations. 

The Shock of Comebacks

With big dreams come big emotions, especially when it comes to comebacks. When Japan took the field against Germany for their first group stage match, a Japanese win seemed far-fetched. Germany went up 1-0 in the first half with a converted penalty kick, but Japan equalized in the 75th minute. Japan’s game-winner, scored in the 83rd minute by Takuma Asano, was a story of mastery, from Asano’s first touch to his lofted strike past Manuel Neuer into the back of the net. Germany had been stunned – an omen for their imminent exit from the tournament. 

Japan’s third and final group stage match against Spain again came loaded with expectations after their 1-0 crushing defeat to Costa Rica. If Japan was to advance to the Round of 16, they needed to at least tie the 2010 World Cup winners. After an early goal in the 11th minute from Spain, Japan was once again positioned to battle from behind. A massive strike from Japan’s Ritsu Doan tied the match in the first minutes back from halftime, quickly followed three minutes later by a goal from Ao Tanaka. While Kaoru Mitoma’s assist to Tanaka appeared to be out of bounds to the naked eye, FIFA quelled debates and criticism of the video assistant referee (VAR) decision with photo evidence and one word: “Definitive.” 

We watch because we want the shock of the impossible comeback. We want to join the age-old tradition of debating referee decisions, becoming part of the action on the pitch.

Both matches for Japan also held the emotion behind capitalizing on key opportunities. Against Germany, Japan only maintained possession for 27 percent of the game. Against Spain, it was less than 18 percent, the lowest recorded possession figure in World Cup history

We watch the Samurai Blue to see these quick conversions that result from momentum and the persistent belief that a comeback is always possible. 

The Weight of Representation

The national team and fans of a given country can seem representative at a nearly continental level. Hoards of media outlets applauded the Japanese fans who cleaned the stadium after their team’s win against Colombia, inspiring other teams’ fans to do the same. This also manifests on the pitch in what is a globally representative Round of 16. Brazil and Argentina alone represent South America. Prior to their loss to the Netherlands in the Round of 16, the United States was North America, Central America, and the Caribbean’s final opportunity. Senegal and Morocco’s advancement to the Round of 16 spurred African dreams. Australia was Oceania’s only hope. Japan and South Korea, similarly, are the last teams standing from Asia. 

Particularly for Asian players, the notable lack of East Asian players in the world’s most successful football leagues means that representation at the World Cup is defining. When the Japanese and South Korean men’s national teams take the pitch at an international competition like the World Cup, they are effectively introducing themselves to the world. This World Cup has seen the popular debut of several Asian players, including Cho Gue-sung, the Korean striker who scored back-to-back goals against Ghana. Cho has been internationally lauded for both his on-pitch performance and his good looks, and is now rumored to be fielding offers from several European clubs, including Scotland’s champions Celtic, alongside predictions of future brand endorsements. 

Son Heung-min, South Korea’s captain, is something of an exception to this rule, as he already calls the international stage home. In 2018, Son heralded a new era of South Korean football as one of the most visible East Asian unofficial ambassadors with global recognition. After recently fracturing his eye socket in a Champions League match for club Tottenham Hotspur, it was unclear whether Son would be fit to play for the Taegeuk Warriors, as South Korea’s team is known, in Qatar. Son has nonetheless played every match for Korea donning a protective face mask, inspiring fans in the stands to do the same. 

We watch South Korea because Son’s story of recovery and perseverance was rewarded at the final whistle of his team’s 2-1 win against Portugal. We watch Son to marvel at the disproportionate pressure and spotlight placed on one individual to bring a team to glory, and we rejoice when that human struggle is rewarded.

The Evidence of Development

Until Qatar 2022, Japan and South Korea were the only countries from the Asian Football Confederation to have hosted a FIFA World Cup. Even though the two countries originally submitted rival bids, Japan and South Korea’s eventual partnership – even if a reluctant one – brought the first World Cup to Asia in 2002. 

As hosts, both Japan and South Korea automatically qualified for the group stages of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Japan had only qualified on merit once before – at the 1998 FIFA World Cup four years prior. This proved to be the fewest amount of prior appearances of any World Cup host before the 2022 host, Qatar. Despite automatically qualifying, Japan nevertheless pushed into the Round of 16 in 2002, eventually losing to Turkey. The looming December 5 match will be Japan’s fourth appearance in the Round of 16, the furthest the men’s national team has ever advanced in a World Cup.

In comparison, South Korea has been somewhat more successful. Prior to hosting in 2002, South Korea had qualified for every group stage since 1986, but had never reached the Round of 16. Even though South Korea went into the 2002 World Cup ranked 40th, the competition proved to be a watershed for Korean football. The Korean team advanced to the Round of 16 and surprised Italy (ranked 6th) in a 2-1 stunner. South Korea missed a penalty in the first half and went into halftime down 1-0, only to return with an equalizer in the 88th minute followed by the game-winner in the 117th minute of extra time against a 10-man Italian squad. The Koreans would go on to place 4th in the tournament overall after losing in the semi-final against Germany, the runner-up of the tournament. This instance of international success cannot be overlooked. The average age of the South Korean team is just over 27; the 2002 success occurred right in the most formative years for much of the 2022 squad. 

We watch these players today as a continuation of a history; that those who came before them had an impact that led to progress.

After hosting the World Cup in 2002, both Japan and South Korea have qualified consistently, making appearances at the 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 tournaments prior to this year, though neither team has advanced beyond the Round of 16 since 2002.

We watch because we want to see evidence of progress and development. We want to believe that hosting or playing in a World Cup can inspire a generation and push a country’s abilities forward.

The Power of Possibility

Fast forward to this year’s World Cup, where both the Japanese and South Korean teams have not only qualified, but advanced to the Round of 16 against significant odds. Monday’s match-ups offer no reprieve: Japan is set to play Croatia, the runner-up of the 2018 World Cup; and South Korea will face Brazil, a favorite and the first-ranked team coming into the tournament. 

The reasons why we watch the Japanese and South Korean men’s national teams are not necessarily unique; they are simply emblematic of stories we have come to love and expect from sports. We root for the likes of Senegal and Morocco for the dreams of underdogs. We sit on the edge of our seats when teams threaten a comeback, even if only momentarily, like Australia against Argentina and Ghana against Portugal. We hope that the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland can finally hoist the golden trophy after years of near success. We respect the domination of countries like Brazil because the success of their national team is evidence of the cultural importance of football in their country.

Even if multiple controversies undoubtedly cast a deserved dark shadow over the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, it is the stories of triumph, defeat, and resilience that bring us back to sports and to football, the world over. 

We watch the World Cup because we believe there is power in possibility.