Korea Republic and Japan achieved a small piece of history for Far Eastern football when both won their opening game at South Africa 2010. Never before had two countries from the Asian continent achieved that, although the identity of their match-winners suggests they owe a small debt of gratitude to a different continent.
South Korean captain Park Ji-Sung played a hugely influential role in his team's 2-0 win over Group B rivals Greece on Saturday, sealing their success with a wonderful solo strike. Two days later, Japan's Keisuke Honda followed suit, scoring the only goal against African heavyweights Cameroon for Japan's first-ever FIFA World Cup win on foreign soil. Pushed up front by coach Takeshi Okada, the midfielder did an excellent job, combining well with right midfielder Daisuke Matsui – notably when converting the latter's cross for the only goal.
The one thing Park, Honda and, indeed, Matsui have in common is vital European experience. Park is now a veteran of the UEFA Champions League, having played in big games in Europe's elite club competition for both PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United, for whom he appeared in the 2009 final against Barcelona. Honda had his first taste of the competition in the season just gone, scoring his CSKA Moscow side’s winning goal against Sevilla in the last 16. It is no coincidence that Japan coach Okada considers Honda and skipper Makoto Hasebe – who played against Park for Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg in the 2009/10 UEFA Champions League group stage – his "central players". Matsui, who has spent the last six seasons in French football, cannot be far behind.
Of the 736 players competing at this FIFA World Cup, more than two-thirds – 546 to be specific – play their club football in Europe. Twenty-nine of that number come from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Seventeen of Australia's squad are Europe-based while there are five in Japan's squad and six with Korea Republic. By contrast, when Japan and Korea suffered a whitewash of defeats at France 1998 – the first FIFA World Cup in which both countries competed – there was only one Europe-based player in the two squads combined, the Japanese playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata.
One of Korea Republic's key players 12 years on, Park Chu-Young, hit eight goals in France's Ligue 1 for Monaco last term and his namesake Park Ji-Sung underlined the significance of this when discussing the 25-year-old's importance to the side. "He is our only striker who is playing in Europe and his experiences have a great influence on the team," he said.
Making it in Europe is the goal for all ambitious Asian footballers, as even Korea DPR's exciting striker, Jong Tae-Se, noted before his eye-catching debut on the world stage against Brazil. Jong, nicknamed the 'Asian Rooney', plays for Kawasaki Frontale in Japan but hopes to follow international team-mate Hong Yong-Jo, based at Russia's FC Rostov, in going west. "I hope to steer my country to great results in this World Cup and after that, I may be able to realise my dream to play in one of Europe's top leagues."
The wisdom of seeking self-improvement in Europe's big leagues makes perfect sense to Kwok Ka-Ming, a member of FIFA's Technical Study Group here in South Africa. Kwok, a coaching instructor for the Asian Football Confederation and former coach of Hong Kong, said: "Having players in Europe's top league has proved quite an effective way for Asian teams to raise their game. Both Korea Republic and Japan have set good examples for other Asian teams. I am quite happy to see the Asian teams' progress and I believe after this World Cup more and more players will have chances to move to Europe after showcasing their talents on the international stage." If they continue the way they have started, there seems no doubt about that.