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Japan's goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda catches the ball during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Japan and Croatia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)Frank Augstein/The Associated Press

For a while there, Japan was a team to cherish at this World Cup. The come-from-behind wins against European superpowers Germany and Spain put it in the spotlight. But it was more than the magic of comebacks and the theme that minnows were defeating giants. It was its spirit, indefatigable and cheerful and, clearly, a motivation to send a message about Asian soccer.

South Korea went out to Brazil, nothing to be ashamed of, given the strength and numbers of Brazilian superstars soaring at just the right moment. Croatia’s manager Zlatko Dalic has described the prospect of playing Brazil in the quarter-final as “terrifying.” South Korea didn’t act terrified, to its credit.

In a tournament of strange upset victories, the teams from Asia will be really missed if you think of soccer as the world’s game, and you should. Both teams were wonderful to watch for neutrals; brave, technically brilliant, ego-free and uninterested in time-wasting theatrics.

Both Japan and Korea have come a long way in 20 years. That’s when the World Cup of 2002 was co-hosted by both countries. At the time, FIFA’s decision to take the tournament to Asia was ridiculed. But FIFA’s intention was to grow the game all over the world. (Remember when FIFA seemed benign?) While much of the soccer world whined about watching games in the early morning hours, the idea was that the World Cup would spur interest, lay a foundation and would help local professional leagues in both countries.

It did that, with the K League 1 and the J1 League eventually flourishing. Both countries have pinballed through tournaments since then, never becoming as feared as they should be. The journeys for both have been strange and unpredictable.

In 2002, the first World Cup I attended as a journalist, it was like the two countries were on different planets. Korea fully embraced the World Cup and had an unnerving confidence about doing well. As it turned out, the optimism was justified. In Japan, there was a suspicion about the game itself, a fear of foreign fans – all assumed to be hooligans – and the core demographic interested in soccer was young. At the first match I attended there, it was hard to find a person over the age of 25. The stadium looked like the venue for a date-night outing, with lots of young couples and attention paid to clothing and snacks. Any middle-aged or elderly person I met was very wary of soccer and the World Cup circus that had just rolled in.

South Korea, in contrast, was all-in. The country’s team went on an amazing run to the semi-finals, demolishing opponents and setting a standard for noisy support, as the locals created a deafening noise in the stadiums. It was a kind of delirium, and I will never forget the mass crowds marching through Seoul, with as many people weeping as there were people cheering and chanting.

It was all the doing and cunning of Dutch coach Guus Hiddink. Wisely, the Korean soccer authorities gave him the freedom to choose players, tactics and mould the team. He chose young players he could turn into elite athletes, concentrating on speed and attack. They became glorious to watch, unfettered and unawed by any opponent.

What had held Korea back, and the same applies to Japan, was the local culture, in particular the deference to older players, the ones considered to have wisdom. This was one of Japan’s problems then. The team made it to the round-of-16 where it was defeated by Turkey. Japan had also hired a European coach, Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who struggled to find a team that gelled and to find a successful tactical approach. His two star players, Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono, looked lost, running after long balls sent forward from the back. As Japan’s sports media would later admit, the team was bedevilled by a fear of failure, of embarrassment in front an intensely loyal, young crowd.

Over the years, both countries developed strategies to improve. Often this has meant relying on the experience of vastly experienced coaches – South Korea’s manager in Qatar, Paulo Bento, had worked with teams in Portugal, Brazil and Greece. Bento described his approach as “build-up football’ and by that he means concentrating on the basics of the game; possession, short passing and communication between every player in the field. Well-drilled, you might call Japan and South Korea, but beautiful to watch.

The women’s game illuminates what has happened with Japan and South Korea. The Japanese women’s team is one of the best in the world, World Cup champion in 2011 and finalist in 2015. How did it do it? A short-passing game that negates the physical superiority of its opponents, a concentration on tactics in corner kicks and free kicks, a mental resilience and a sense of unity. Master classes in the basics is what Asian teams always offer these days.