SAINT-PETERSBURG: Thursday was a tough day for Asian football as an average Russian team thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening round of the 2018 World Cup. In the build-up to the game at the Luzhniki Stadium, everything was perfect.
The sun was shining, there were fans from all over the world and the atmosphere was one of fun and frivolity and togetherness. There were also a healthy contingent of fans from Saudi Arabia with an oil company based in the eastern region of the country. There was genuine excitement as fans mixed outside and there was some optimism too. Everyone was predicting a win, albeit a narrow one, for the Green Falcons.
Of couse, it didn’t quite turn out that way. 5-0 was a painful thrashing to sit through. There were a number of things that made it worse than just a big defeat. The first was that Russia are obviously nothing special. Getting a lesson from the likes of Germany and/or Brazil would be bad enough but when it comes from the team ranked number 70 in the world…
The opening match of the 2018 #WorldCup is in the books❗️
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) June 14, 2018
Then there was the fact that this was the opening game. In the glamour stakes, Russia taking on Saudi Arabia would obviously not be the most eagerly-awaited clash in a World Cup for many neutrals around the planet but this was the first game and all eyes were fixed on those 22 players. It was not the advertisement that Asian football was looking for especially after 2014.
Brazil 2014. That was the third point. After the events of four years ago when four Asian teams collected just three points between then and did not win a single game, it was vital that Asia got off to a good start. It didn’t and the criticism and insults soon followed. Some warranted, some not. Nobody could deny that it was a bad look for Asian football. Saudi Arabia had qualified automatically by coming second in their group and while all knew there were some obvious weaknesses in the team, they had deserved to qualify. The team had looked to be improving under Juan Antonio Pizzi, appointed only in November, and were fitter and more assured in possession and faster in transition.
None of that was apparent or mattered on Thursday as the Saudis were open and exposed. There had been talk in both press conferences before the game of the Saudi susceptibility to crosses. Pizzi said that it was something they would have to deal with and they did not. When you are all over the place at the back and are toothless in attack then it does not matter how tidy you are in midfield. Now the team have to show the required mentality to come back and perform well against Uruguay.
But then it is time to thank the football gods for Iran. Team Melli came the closest to doing something four years ago and were only denied what would have been a deserved point against eventual finalists Argentina by a last minute slice of Messi magic.
Going into the tournament, Iran were clearly the best Asian team though had been placed in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and the under-rated (at least in Asia) Morocco. The first game against the North Africans was always going to be vital for both teams. Lose and it makes the tough task of finishing in the top two spots significantly more difficult. Talking to fans from both countries before the game and they all agreed that a defeat meant the end.
Wild celebrations from @TeamMelliIran after beating Morocco. ?????
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) June 16, 2018
Iran won thanks to a last-minute own goal. It was the team’s first World Cup win since 1998 and that game against the United States in Lyon. This was a different affair and something of a smash-and-grab against Morocco. The game was heading for a 0-0 draw until a last minute own goal. Carlos Queiroz neutralised the Moroccan threat and frustrated the talented North Africans.
But more importantly from an Asian point of view it ended a 16 game winless drought and showed that the continent can compete. Iran are Asia’s best team and the continent owes them thanks. There is still a long way yo go but things are looking up. Now it is up to the rest.