Japan fans are jubilant watching their team do well at the World Cup. Photo: Reuters
If there’s one glaring trend to take from the Fifa World Cup currently underway in Russia, it’s unequivocally this: The gap between football’s traditional powerhouses and the rest of the world is closing.

The group stages had many tight, tense games and quite a few surprise results as teams threw the form book and conventional perceptions out of the window.

And for me, this unexpectedly rapid advancement has come most particularly from countries on the Asian continent. Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the build-up to the event, were ostensibly in Russia just to make up the numbers, but boy, did they impress.

Forget the Saudis’ heavy defeat to Russia and chalk that down to opening day jitters, because after that they performed rather admirably. Iran, under coach Carlos Queiroz, were magnificent, Japan are in the round of last 16, and South Korea pulled off the upset of the tournament in defeating world champions Germany.

Throughout, the Asian sides played with commendable discipline, superb defensive shape and structure, and their all-round teamwork and game management were exemplary. One thing’s certain: They haven’t allowed their football to stand still; they’ve made tremendous strides.

In the past it was often said that Asian teams were far too soft and slight and not physical enough; well, better sing another tune. In this World Cup, they’ve proven they can be just as aggressive as anyone; they got stuck in and they really relished the rough stuff. Nothing wrong with that - football is not a game for sissies.

This improvement is a testament to the manner in which Asian countries are investing in their football structures. Coaching standards have improved, which has led to the refinement of players’ technical and tactical skills.

They have pumped money into their local leagues, which has resulted not only in improved organisational capacity, but also in attracting some of the world’s top names.

And, while some of these top players are into their 30s when they arrive in Asia, they are still able to transfer their vast knowledge and experience. Imagine all of that football intellect, expertise, professionalism and understanding rubbing off on the locals they play alongside.

Meanwhile, every four years, it’s like this; it’s as if the planet pauses the rotation of its axis to peer inquisitively at the madness taking place in one particular corner of its surface. This time it’s in Russia and as usual it’s the same drama and emotion, the same joy and pain, which continues to enthrall us every four years.

Football has again proved that as a sport, there is nothing quite like it; the appeal is global and is able to stir people’s passion in a way that words often can’t describe.

For a month, while the World Cup is under way, everything else is secondary.

As a country, host Russia remains immersed in a political quagmire, both at home and internationally, but for now, nobody cares. The attitude is simply: we’ll think about it again when the World Cup is over.

Because that is what football does - it focuses everybody’s attention on the game and the concomitant emotions, be that the agony of defeat or the rapture of victory.

For now, football serves as a way to temporarily shirk the maddeningly frustrating issues that plague our subconscious when we wake up every morning. For now, just for now, when we open our eyes, all we do is ask: What game am I watching today?


Weekend Argus

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