Midfield General

Underrated by Design

FIFA's system has made Japan and Korea the sleeper teams in this World Cup -- just like last time.

Something happens when you put away your pride and go up against the best, knowing all the while that failure is the most likely outcome. More often than not, you learn. You learn about your own character and fortitude, and you learn what makes the opposition so strong. These lessons can be costly, but Japan and Korea are always willing to pay -- and that's why FIFA underrates them.

There's a certain disconnect from reality when it comes to FIFA's expectations for these two East Asian teams and their actual performance on the field. Consider the 2002 World Cup, regarded as a watershed moment for soccer in Japan and Korea. After dismal performances in France in 1998, the two countries -- joint hosts of the tournament that year -- went into the cup rated 32nd (Japan) and 40th (Korea). Home field is always an advantage, but few expected the joint hosts to finish ninth and fourth respectively, with wins for Japan over Portugal and Korea over Italy.

Four years later, in the wake of that epic accomplishment, they achieved together basically what the world expected of them: 29th for Japan (ranked 18th going into the tournament by FIFA) and 17th for Korea (ranked 29th) -- not surprising, but not too shabby, either. And that might have been the end of the story: a gradual settling down into a comfortable sort of respectability, of the kind the United States has lately enjoyed. But in 2010, something went a little pear-shaped in the FIFA view of its leading Asian teams.

Japan and Korea were ranked 45th and 47th before the South African games began, but Japan finished ninth again and Korea 15th. Only a penalty shootout against Paraguay kept Japan out of the quarterfinals after it claimed the scalps of Denmark and Cameroon. Meanwhile, Korea beat Greece and drew with Nigeria, hardly a pair of lightweights. This time around, Japan is ranked 47th and Korea languishes at 55th. Yet both teams have already taken a point from higher-ranked opponents and could make the group stage.

To understand what's happening here, it helps to think about a regular person trying to learn a sport like tennis. If he always plays against people who are even worse than he is, he'll rack up a lot of wins. No one, however, will be very impressed.  And if he keeps picking weak opponents, it'll be tough for him to improve his game. To get better, he'll have to take on superior players and probably lose quite a few matches in the process.

Japan and Korea find themselves in the same situation. Their corner of the world offers few worthy competitors; if the gulf between them and the superpowers of South America and Europe is wide, the gulf between them and many of their neighbors is even wider. After being given a bye in the early rounds of qualifying for this World Cup, both Japan and Korea went 8-3-3 against Asian opposition. But most of the teams they faced had exceedingly poor FIFA rankings.

Korea won 6-0 over Lebanon, currently ranked 125th by FIFA, and 4-1 over 100th-ranked Qatar. Japan won 8-0 against Tajikistan, now ranked 126th by FIFA, and 6-0 against 63rd-ranked Jordan. (The Jordanians somehow made a playoff with Uruguay for a spot in Brazil, suggesting they were Asia-plus-Australia's fifth-best team; they lost 5-0 to the South Americans over two legs.) But because of the flimsy opposition, even these good results didn't push Japan and Korea too far up the FIFA table.

The Asian qualifying tournament ended for Japan and Korea in June 2013. So what did they do to warm up for Brazil? Japan's next three matches were against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico at the Confederations Cup. It lost all three. Over the next 12 months, Japan also played Uruguay, Ghana, Serbia, the Netherlands, and Belgium, going 2-1-2. Korea took a similar path, taking on Brazil, Switzerland, Russia, Mexico, the United States, Greece, and Ghana -- and compiling a record of 1-0-6.

It wasn't the greatest run of results for either team, and it didn't do their FIFA rankings any favors. But all of these opponents were teams with long histories in the World Cup. If Japan and Korea wanted to get better, these were the teams they had to play. Just as for Honda in the 1970s and Hyundai in the 1980s, the only way to compete with the dominant powers on the world's biggest stage was to meet them head-to-head, learn from them, and come back even stronger. Japan even came up with a new way to make cars that turned out to be more efficient and reliable than anything its American and German competitors were doing.

Even if FIFA can't see how its rankings are misevaluating Japan and Korea, the bookmakers can. Adjusting for a four percent profit, Japan was expected to win 28 of the 50 international games it played before this year's World Cup, and it won exactly 28 of them. Korea, if anything, was overrated; bettors expected its team to win 25 matches, but they came up with only 22 victories. At least someone is giving these Asian soccer superpowers their due.

Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty Images


Reading Between the Teleprompter Lines

What Obama was really thinking during his Iraq remarks.

There are times when I listen to U.S. presidents that I imagine giant bubbles appearing over their heads connected by tiny dots -- just like in cartoons. But these bubbles contain their real thoughts.

I see these bubbles every time U.S. President Barack Obama appears publicly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Russian President Vladimir Putin. They say things like: "I really can't stand these guys. Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev, where are you?"

As I listened to Obama's carefully constructed update on Iraq on Thursday, I couldn't help but imagine what the president was thinking and, perhaps more importantly, feeling. The president's five points were an effort to find a balance for the next steps in Iraq that was not too risk averse and not too risk ready. Call it the Goldilocks speech -- rational and logical, not too hot and not too cold.

But that logic and rationality masked a fierce determination and commitment to certain assumptions. Let's call it the Bubble Conversation. Forget the words you heard. Here's what Obama was probably thinking -- and these are the thoughts certain to drive his policy toward Iraq in the 1,000 or so days that remain in his presidency.

What he said: "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq."

What he was really thinking: "If you think I'm getting involved in another trillion-dollar social science experiment to intercede in Iraq, you're crazy. I'm the extricator in chief. I get America out of unwinnable wars, not into them. If you wanted one of those, you should have voted for John McCain."

What he said: "But what's clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center, the issue that I keep front and center, is, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America?"

What he was really thinking: "The world isn't coming to an end. Don't try to convince me that it is. We just went through this with Ukraine. This town lost its collective mind: a new Cold War, a Russian takeover of Ukraine, a new Hitler on the march, a complete collapse of the post- Cold War 1991 arrangements in Europe. And guess what? None of it took place. I kept my head, though, and responded effectively. And we'll do it this time too. ISIS isn't taking over the world. And I'm not going to respond as if it were."

What he said: nothing on Syria.

What he was really thinking: "Don't get your hopes up for a more muscular response from me on Syria. It was no coincidence that I didn't mention it in my formal remarks. The fact is, I don't know what to do. Syria is a mess. And having willfully avoided direct U.S. military intervention there, I'm not interested in doing it now. I'll ramp up support to carefully vetted opposition groups and have military assets in place for air and missile strikes if warranted and necessary. But I won't be guilted or pressured into serious intervention, let alone saving Syria because I'm worried about losing Iraq."

What he said: "Now, it's not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders. It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis."

What he was really thinking: "Mr. Maliki, get the hell out of here. I can't say it because if I do and he doesn't leave, I'll end up repeating the mistake I made with Assad. But this guy's got to go. He's damaged goods. I'm hoping that Sunnis and other Shiites will start to make noise and build pressure and we'll make it clear too that any serious support will depend on his departure. We now have some time to let the pressure build on him, rather than on us. I'll also see where Iran is on this. They may be prepared to press Maliki, but I'm no fool. I know their vision for Iraq isn't ours."

What he said: "The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he'll be able to consult with our allies and partners."

What he was really thinking: "I really hate all this Middle East stuff. This is a broken, angry, dysfunctional region. And the United States is stuck in the middle of it. I care much more about the middle class than the Middle East. But I know I need to pretend. There's oil, nukes, terrorists. But these Middle Eastern leaders are worse than the Republicans, Israelis, and Palestinians: all yours, Mr. Secretary. My main goal is to reach a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue to prevent an Israeli strike, make an American one unnecessary, and see if I can't work with Iran to cool Iraq down too, and then get the hell out of town. This region won't produce solutions to anything, just outcomes. You know what? I just had a terrific thought that makes me want to smile. In less than a thousand days, all of this will be Hillary's problem."

Win McNamee/Getty Images