Big upsets by Asian nations at World Cup

CAPTAINS: Jason Cunliffe, the captain of the Guam Men's National Soccer team, with current Japan captain Maya Yoshida, in the dormitories for J League team Nagoya Grampus Eight, where Cunliffe was attending a trial and roomed with Yoshida. Yoshida was the captain of the Japan team that came back to beat Germany 2-1 in Japan's first match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Jason Cunliffe/The Guam Daily Post

We are officially five days into the World Cup and the majority of reports being heard out of Qatar are positive.

Fans have enjoyed the venues as well as the "fests" that have been set up for sports lovers to enjoy the matches together even when they don’t have tickets to the games. We’ve seen a couple of issues come up with one being related to culture and the other, while also inferred to be culture-related, is just down to the rules of FIFA.

The first is the banning of alcohol from the stadiums, which obviously wasn’t great news for major sponsor Budweiser. The other issue was in relation to certain countries wanting their captains to wear a special “One Love” armband in support of the LGBTQ community.

FIFA is very specific about what a captain’s armband can contain on it.

There are some out there who have assumed the decision was also related to the culture of the host nation but I can tell you from experience, that is not the case. Before every match, the referees come to your locker room 80 minutes before kickoff to do a uniform inspection. They check your player’s badge and your number to make sure it matches up with the squad list our team manager turns in. As the captain, I always have to bring over the armband as well to make sure it doesn’t have any extra advertising or writings on it; it has to be very plain. While I fully support the attempted gesture to have been made by the likes of Denmark, England and Wales, to name a few, the reality is the law has been in place way before the “One Love” controversy and should they choose to wear it in a match, they would have to deal with the consequences of such, which in this case would be a yellow card.

In a one-off match, a yellow card isn’t a big deal, but in tournament play it can be huge as multiple yellow cards across multiple matches can mean you have to miss a game. Having cleared that up, back to the matches!

Wins and losses

We’ve seen two huge results with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a shocking, come-from-behind win over Lionel Messi and Argentina. After Messi scored a penalty in the first half, most fans, myself included, considered the rest of the match to be an afterthought. KSA had other ideas and, in the second half, scored two great goals to take the lead by the 53rd minute. Even then, most assumed the Albiceleste would find a way to get the result, but resolute defending by KSA gave us the biggest upset of the tournament so far. Tactically, the Saudis set up in a 1-5-3-2 and played a high defensive line which most wouldn’t do against a team such as Argentina.

The KSA players prepared very well and their high line caught the Argentine squad offside a number of times throughout the match. When Argentina started to solve the high line through wide play, the Saudi goalkeeper and defenders did everything in their power to deny the Argentines a goal. They were made to suffer for much of the match, but their preparation and resolve proved to be enough to get the result. Argentina now needs to win its next two matches against Mexico and Poland to have a chance to get out of the group stage.

It should be noted that Spain lost its first match in South Africa in 2010 and went on to win the tournament, beating Netherlands in the final. As Lloyd Christmas famously exclaimed in the cult classic "Dumb and Dumber," “So you’re telling me there’s a chance, yeah!”

The second big result came from the dreaded "Group of Death," when Japan, similar to their Asian Football Confederation counterparts KSA, overcame an early first half penalty to claim a 2-1 lead against four-time world champions Germany.

While the first half was just about all Germany, a tactical adjustment at halftime flipped the game on its head. The Blue Samurai, as the Japan team is known, started the match in a 1-4-2-3-1 but switched to a 1-3-4-3 for the second half and it made all the difference. The Germans didn’t anticipate the adjustment, nor did they solve the problem on the pitch as the Japanese attacked in waves, creating all kinds of issues for the Germans. The pressure paid off as goals in the 75th and the 83rd minutes put Japan on top and they were able to see out the rest of the match to secure the huge victory.

The Germans play Spain next, who easily dispatched Costa Rica 7-0. Anything less than a win for Die Mannschaft, as they're known in Germany, will result in a second World Cup tournament in a row where the German side didn’t get out of the group stage.

Captain to captain

If Japan wins against Costa Rica, the Blue Samurai will guarantee themselves a spot in the round of 16, a feat not many predicted pre-tournament.

The Japanese team has a special place in my heart, as their captain, Maya Yoshida, is a good friend of mine. Once upon a time I went on trial at Nagoya Grampus Eight of the J League and I spent much of my time with Maya in the dorms as he was a young player coming up in their ranks. We met up again on Guam when he visited with Nagoya. He has since moved over to Europe, playing in some of the biggest leagues in the world, including the English Premier League, Serie A of Italy and the Bundesliga of Germany. Throughout this time we’ve kept in touch and it has been great to see him do so well.

As Guam is a part of the Asian Football Confederation, it is great to see two teams from our confederation getting such good results. Football is genuinely the world’s game and the former minnows are starting to make ground on some of the huge football nations.

This is something I always try to preach to my teammates and also to the players I coach.

With proper preparation, hard work, and a bit of luck, anything is possible. But it all starts with belief and nobody knows more than I do how capable our local athletes are. They just need to be given the opportunities to dream the biggest dreams and it is up to the leaders in our respective sports federations to ensure our kids have the coaching and the pathways to do just that.

If you’ve got young athletes in your household who want to reach the highest levels of their respective sports, do yourself a favor and let them watch the World Cup, which is showing the world that anything is possible.

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