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Australia joins Asian challenge in South Africa

Australia joins Asian challenge in South Africa

The Asian challenge at the World Cup in South Africa will come from a two-continent front.
Australia is participating in the World Cup as a representative of the Asian Football Confederation for the first time and is the most likely of the qualified quartet to achieve what would be considered regional success at the World Cup: The second round.
The Far East has three contenders, with the Korean peninsula qualifying two teams _ South Korea for the eighth time and North Korea for its first appearance since a quarterfinal run in 1966 _ and Japan making it to the finals for the fourth straight time.
Australia joined the Asian confederation from Oceania in 2006 and went to the World Cup in Germany following an intercontinental playoff win over Uruguay.
Guus Hiddink took Australia to the second round before a contentious late penalty against eventual champion Italy ended the run. Now Hiddink's former assistant, Pim Verbeek, aims to do the same and progress from a group also containing Germany, Ghana and Serbia.
Despite the tough group, the Socceroos have the strength and experience to handle their opponents. With Mark Schwarzer among the top goalkeepers in the Premier League, Tim Cahill one of its best midfielders and a whole host of stars playing in Europe's top leagues, the Socceroos are confident.
"The thing about this group is that it won't scare us," Australian captain Lucas Neill said. "We will be playing two European-style teams and we are quite European in our own style. That's a good thing and I am sure it will be a case of two teams clashing on the day. We have a physical presence and we will be looking to assert that."
The major worry for Verbeek is the fitness of his stars as the tough European season takes its toll. The Australian team's weakness is a lack of strength in depth.
South Korea, Verbeek's former team, is preparing for a seventh straight World Cup. Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung is standout leader for South Korea, with young European-based stars such as Lee Chung-young of Bolton, Ki Sung-yong of Celtic and Park Chu-young of Monaco adding a touch of class for the 2002 semifinalists.
The South Koreans qualified unbeaten through a tough group but defensive problems have since emerged, as a 4-2 loss in January against Zambia and a 3-0 defeat against China in February demonstrate. The biggest challenge facing coach Huh Jung-moo is solving the lapses at the back.
"We finished semifinalists in 2002 but, aside from this, we have never progressed beyond the group stage playing outside Asia," Huh said. "So our first target is to reach the round of 16 and, should we make it, we will definitely strive to go one better."
Japan coach Takeshi Okada has repeatedly stated his target of a semifinal finish in South Africa.
Okada is under serious pressure after three poor results at home in February. Tepid, scoreless draws against Venezuela and China and a 3-1 loss in Tokyo at the hands of South Korea caused fans to jeer the team and Japan Football Association president Motoaki Inukai to demand improvement.
North Korea is given little chance of reaching the second round because it is viewed as the weakest Asian representative and has also been drawn in the toughest group with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.
Despite that, the team has never failed to reach the knockout stage. In its only appearance so far, North Korea defeated Italy to reach the quarterfinals in 1966.
Pak Do Ik was the hero then. This time, it is Jong Tae Se.
"The People's Rooney" _ a nod to England striker Wayne Rooney _ plays for Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale and is one of the biggest stars of East Asian football.
"Our target is to make it through the group stage, though I think that it is a difficult group," Jong said. "If we don't believe that we can win then we won't win. If we believe that we can do it, then we can."


Updated : 2021-06-23 00:31 GMT+08:00