Although Japan lost to Poland last Thursday (June 28) and tied with Senegal on four points with the same goal difference, the Blue Samurais qualified for the last 16 thanks to a new rule in the World Cup playbook involving yellow cards.
What was even more surprising was that in the history of the World Cup, this was only the seventh time that an Asian team has gotten past the group stages, with Japan making it into the round of 16 for the third time to face favourites Belgium.
Throughout the almost-100-year history of the World Cup, not many Asian countries have gone far in the tournament. Here is a look back at the good, bad and sometimes-bizarre Asian moments in the World Cup through the decades.
The story of the first Asian team which qualified for the World Cup is an engrossing one.
Back in the 1938 World Cup in France, the Dutch East Indies – or Indonesia, as it’s more commonly known today – became the first Asian team to qualify for the tournament.
The reason for the mouthful of a name was because Indonesia only declared independence in 1945, and were still a colony back then.
Hence, some of the players’ names also didn’t sounded particularly Asian, with the likes of Jack Samuels and Henk Sommers playing alongside midfielder Anwar Sutan.
The Dutch East Indies didn’t last too long as the tournament was played in a knockout format and they lost to Hungary six-nil. Well, at least they have the record of being the first to qualify!
Asian teams tend to be the underdogs at the World Cup. And that is not an understatement.
Take South Korea’s first venture into the tournament in 1954: it ended with them being thrashed 9-0 and 7-0 by Hungary and Turkey respectively.
Even worse, no Asian teams qualified in the 1958, 1962 and 1974 editions!
Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, China and Japan all went win-less in their respective World Cup debuts, with the worst of the defeats sometimes almost reaching double digits.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia put in what must be the worst showing for an Asian team they scored nothing but let in eight, one and three goals to Germany, Cameroon and the Republic of Ireland respectively.
There have been a few odd World Cup stories that surround Asian teams.
Remember the Dutch East Indies earlier who hold the record of being the first to qualify? In the same vein, they also hold the record for playing the least number of matches – one.
Word is the India team that was set to play at the 1950 edition also famously withdrew from the tournament after being unwilling to play with boots on! They had wanted to play barefooted but FIFA did not budge on that.
It’s a great story for the pub but one that is, alas, untrue because the fact was India didn’t play because they could not afford to pay to travel to the tournament. In fact, they actually qualified by default only because three other Asian countries – Burma, Philippines and Indonesia – all backed out of the draw.
Believe it or not but there have been times when Asian teams could beat even the staunchest of opponents on the field.
North Korea were the first team to register an impressive performance back in 1966 when they drew Chile and shocked Italy by beating them.
They made it to the next round where they faced Portugal, but after going three goals up, they conceded five to lose the game and exit the tournament.
In 1994, Saudi Arabia reached the round of 16 by beating Belgium and Morocco. In the Belgium game, Saudi Arabian player Saaed Al-Owairian scored one of the all-time greatest goals in the history of the tournament when he ran from his own half to score the winner.
Japan has gotten to the round of 16 three times, while Australia has managed to get past the group stages once in 2006. In fact, the Socceroos have been a bit of a powerhouse of late and have scored some great goals in the past.
The greatest achievement of all Asian teams however, was in 2002. Japan and South Korea were the co-hosts for the tournament that year, and the former progressed to the round of 16 unbeaten before losing to Turkey.
South Korea went even further. They beat Portugal in the last game of the group stage, and in the next game, they faced one of the juggernauts of world football, Italy.
In one of the most controversial games of all time, South Korea stole the win at the dying stages of extra time, when Ahn Jung-hwan headed his country to the quarter finals.
South Korea drew to Spain in the quarters, and after a tense penalty shootout, they won the tie by five penalties to three, becoming the only Asian team so far to qualify for the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Unfortunately, they lost to Germany and were also defeated in the third-place match by Turkey.
Still, the achievement of finishing fourth in a World Cup is a milestone for Asian football and all hopes now rest on Japan when they face a red-hot unbeaten Belgium side on Monday evening.
With the odds stacked against them, will the Samurai Blue be the next Asian team to etch their names into World Cup history?
Only time will tell.