Asia's long, hard qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ lasted for two years and five months, with 43 teams involved and a total of 116 matches played. It ended with Japan and Korea Republic underlining their status as favourites, while Australia made it through for the third time in succession and Iran, under Carlos Queiroz, sealed a welcome return to the global showpiece.
Yet while this quartet achieved the same objective, they did so in very different fashion. Alberto Zaccheroni's Japan emerged as the most consistent and arguably impressive performers, and ultimately progressed with a game to spare. Australia, on the other hand, struggled throughout, and only Joshua Kennedy's late goal in their concluding game against Iraq secured qualification.
In the other section, both Korea Republic and Iran experienced rollercoaster campaigns and endured losses that, at the time, threatened to have serious implications. However, despite their early setbacks, Team Melli rallied to stage a late surge, reviving fortunes with three straight victories. And though the road to Brazil looked even more bumpy for the Taeguk Warriors, they eventually edged Uzbekistan on goal difference to seal an eighth successive appearance at the world finals.
Jordan raised quite a few eyebrows by reaching the international play-off phase, despite losing to Uruguay -0 over two legs. The Hashemite Kingdom made history by storming into Asia's final qualifying round for the first time, where they sprang a series of surprises including stunning Australia and Japan on home turf to set up a continental play-off with Uzbekistan. Once again they beat the pundits by edging the former Soviet republic on penalties, only to be eventually found lacking against the South Americans.
*The qualified teams *Australia, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic
5 memorable moments
*Iran entered their concluding match in Seoul facing the same opponents that knocked them out at the same stage of the South Africa 2010 qualifiers with a 1-1 draw. The outcome this time was very different though, and so were Iran’s emotions – all thanks to a moment of magic by striker Reza Ghoochannejhad. With Iran on back football, ‘Gucci’, as he is affectionately named, scored a terrific solo goal to not only seal the victory, but qualification for Brazil 2014.
*Supersub Son strikes
*When Korea Republic were locked at 1-1 with a desperate Qatar on 81 minutes, it looked as if the game was destined for stalemate. That, however, was until young Son Heungmin was brought on to change the face of the game. Having repeatedly tested the rival defence, the Hamburg winger eventually delivered the fatal blow deep into stoppage time to send home fans delirious.
*Kennedy to the rescue
*Having somehow avoided elimination during an often-unhappy campaign, Australia still needed at least a home win against a resilient Iraq to claim berth in Brazil. In what proved to be another stiff test for the Socceroos, the hosts were made to sweat for 83 minutes before substitute Josh Kennedy settled the contest in dramatic fashion with a trademark header.
*Okazaki settles Japanese nerves
*Runway leaders Japan had a hard time of it in Muscat, when hosts Oman who - after canceling Hiroshi Kiyotake's early opener through Ahmed Mubarak - threw everything forward in search of a winner. It was then, with the pressure on, that Shinji Okazazi eased the visitors’ worries with a last-ditch effort to leave his side on the verge of qualifying.
*The sight of Server Djeparov walking off pitch in silent dejection after losing the Asian Zone play-off to Jordan on penalties was poignant. The two-time AFC Player of the Year excelled in his role as captain and creative fulcrum of an Uzbekistan side that led the way for much of their campaign. Sadly for Djeparov though, the Central Asians’ promising campaign once again ended up unfolding as a heart-breaking near-miss.
Players to watch
Keisuke Honda has cemented his place as Japan's talisman, a reputation he initially gained through his eye-catching performances during the last FIFA World Cup. Despite missing the third phase due to injuries, the CSKA Moscow midfielder set the subsequent stage alight with inspirational displays, scoring five times, including the equaliser against Australia that took Japan through.
Although Australia's older generation remain influential, it is clear that new talents are needed to complement the veterans if the Socceroos are to fare well in Brazil next year. One player well worth watching will be Bayer Leverkusen forward Robbie Kruse, who dazzled spectators with his speedy and skilful performances during the campaign.
Hong Myungbo may have plenty of stars at his disposal, but particularly impressive during the preliminaries was on-song midfielder Koo Jacheol. The 24-year-old had exploded on to the Asian scene by earning the Golden Boot award in the last AFC Asian Cup, before captaining Hong's U23 side to the last four at London 2012. With his exploits in German Bundesliga added to his international experience, the VfL Wolfsburg man is expected to continue his progress at Brazil 2014.
What they said
"Our aim is to take an enormous leap forward, put ourselves on the same rung as Japan and Korea and take our place among Asia's top three."* Iran coach Carlos Queiroz*
"Compared with the last World Cup, Japan has more defenders and forwards playing regularly abroad. As an individual, I’d like people to think of the name Nagatomo when they think of world-class left-backs."
Japan defender Yuto Nagatomo
The stats 8- Iran emerged the most efficient in Asia's fourth qualifying round, scoring eight times in as many games as they sealed their place at Brazil 2014.
14 - The number of Europe-based players Japan featured in their decisive 1-1 home draw against Australia, the highest ratio of overseas stars in any of the Asian sides on show.
* The top scorers*
Shinji Okazaki (Japan) 8, Le Cong Vinh (Vietnam) 7, Hassan Mahmoud (Jordan) 7