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