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World Cup 2010: Japan could shed Asian 'underdog' tag against Paraguay
Sean Carroll - 3 years ago

After steady performances against Cameroon and Holland, Japan needed only a point from their final Group E match, against Denmark, to qualify for the second round. Despite that, very few observers gave them a second thought as possible qualifiers for the last 16. Danish fans interviewed on Japanese television before the game were unanimous in their expectation of a routine victory – an opinion that was shared by most of the European media. The Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner said he would be "bitterly disappointed" to lose.

Japan's assertive, even ruthless display – arguably one of the best of the tournament so far – saw them win 3-1. But rather than being lauded for the manner in which they had beaten supposedly superior opponents, Japan were said to have brought about a shock result, an upset. No "Joga Bonito!" headlines for them.

• Follow the Guardian's World Cup team on Twitter• Sign up to play our daily Fantasy Football game• Stats centre: Get the lowdown on every player• The latest team-by-team news, features and moreThis appears to be the default response to success by Asian sides. While big things are hoped for from African nations, teams from the east are assumed to be making up the numbers.

The truth is that until Ghana booked their place in the last eight last night, Africa and Asia were tied on two appearances each in the quarter-finals or beyond of a World Cup.

The underestimation of Asian football is not confined to the international sides. The few Asian players who make it to Europe are treated in a similarly patronising fashion. Common stereotypes – that they are "not big enough" or "hardworking but tactically naive" – are wheeled out to explain why these players are not given the opportunities afforded to those from other continents.

Any misgivings about a player's size should surely be dispelled by Lionel Messi, who won Fifa's world player of the year award and is smaller than every member of the Japan squad at the finals. Messi's coach in South Africa – all 5 ft 5in of him – wasn't bad either.

Asian players have to plug away even harder than their supposedly innate work-rate allows if they are to win over the doubters. The practice of writing off talented signings as marketing ploys is still rife – even when those players play a vital role for one of the world's top teams.

Park Ji-sung, who has been one of Manchester United's most consistent performers over the past five years, has only recently started to receive the credit he deserves – and even the South Korean captain is still underrated on occasion. Last season, he was used by a Sunday broadsheet to demonstrate just how poor Aston Villa had been when a match report stated that "Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney and even Park Ji-sung skipped round Villa defenders with nonchalant ease."

Even Park Ji-sung? A man who has played in a World Cup semi-final and won three Premier League titles? Wow, they must have been bad.

Since Park established himself in the Premier League, South Korean victories at major finals have been met with fewer raised eyebrows. But Japan are viewed as underdogs almost regardless of who they are playing – largely because nobody really knows who any of their players are. While the majority of teams at this year's finals include players from the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A, most of the Japan squad play in the J-League for teams with strange names, like Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F Marinos. Surely, therefore, they can't be all that.

Sadly, this myth is even perpetuated in Asia, where mass consumption of European football does not help. Messi, Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo et al are more than just footballers: they are brands, icons, superheroes, plastered across the TV either on a football pitch or in an advertisement. Their reputations have reached such levels that it is assumed local players simply cannot compete.

Many Japanese supporters were afraid of Bendtner before the Denmark game, predominantly because they knew he played for Arsenal. I can only assume they hadn't watched him do so. As he displayed on Thursday, the gulf is often not so vast.

Japan face a useful Paraguay side on Tuesday, and if Takeshi Okada's side are able to reach the quarter-finals it would be nice to think that the underestimation of Asian football will cease. But this is doubtful, and victories by teams from this part of the world are likely to be regarded as shocks for some time to come.

Well, until Keisuke Honda is in global ads for Pringles, at least.

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.

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