Seoul, South Korea, Sept 9 : The weakest of Asia's nations may still be a long way from challenging established powers like Japan and South Korea, but countries traditionally consigned to the continent's lower-middle order are suddenly finding themselves upwardly mobile.
After two of six matches in the third round of Asian qualification for the 2014 World Cup, most of the impressive performers so far have come as something of a surprise.
To see Australia, Japan and South Korea leading each of their respective groups was expected, but to see Jordan leading Group A was not.
Jordan has six points already, and along with Australia, is the only team to have a perfect record from the opening two games. The points collected so far is just one short of the total tally that Jordan earned in its six games at the same stage in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Thailand, Lebanon and Kuwait have all matched or surpassed their efforts of four years ago.
The top two teams from each of the five groups of four progresses to the final stage.
Led by Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad, one of only five Asian coaches out of 20 in this stage, Jordan has been the most impressive team in qualification so far. It is building on the success it had at the 2011 Asian Cup when it finished the group stage with the name number of points as eventual champion Japan before being defeated 1-0 in the quarterfinal by Uzbekistan.
A 2-0 win at the 2007 Asian champion Iraq was followed by a hard-fought 2-1 victory at China on Tuesday.
“We had a very tough match,” Jordan coach Adnan Hamad told The Associated Press. “The Chinese played well in the first half, but we managed to regroup and play as we planned. The result took us to the top of the group and we are really excited.”
Well-organized, with an ability to counterattack clinically, Hamad is preparing for back-to-back games against Singapore, a team that has lost both matches so far. Two good results could put Jordan in the final round, along with nine others chasing Asia's 4 direct qualification places, and the chance of an inter-confederation playoff for a fifth spot.
The president of the Jordan Football Association is so delighted with the team's start that he announced that each player would receive a $6,000 bonus.
“I am happy with the results achieved in the first two matches.” Prince Ali bin al-Hussein told reporters. “It proves that Jordan football is in great condition and the national team can progress more in the qualifiers.
“The team should be cautious and not be complacent as the next two matches against Singapore are important to reach the fourth round.”
Thailand has also performed above expectations. The Elephants parted company with coach Bryan Robson in June and were generally regarded as the weakest team in Group D.
The team tactically outthought and outplayed its Australian hosts for much of the opening match in Brisbane and only an 86th minute goal from Alex Brosque gave the Socceroos a 2-1 win.
Under coach Winfried Schafer, the Thais then made the long trip home to Bangkok to comfortably defeat Oman 3-0 and move into second place in the group.
“The Thai performances against Australia and Oman were outstanding, especially with the injury toll they had,” Steve Darby, who left his post as assistant Thailand coach in June, told AP.
“I think the key to success is the continued development of competitive national leagues and the limited inclusion of foreign players, including Asian players, who are good professionals on and off the pitch.”
One of those is Pakistan captain Zesh Rehman who plays for Thailand champion Muang Thong United.
“Thailand now has many foreign players in the domestic league from all over the world and this raises the level of the local players,” Rehman said.
“A few more clubs have European coaches which help to change the mentality and improve the overall professionalism of the game here. The Thailand coach has installed belief into the players and they no longer fear the so-called bigger nations. People outside of Thailand must not underestimate the level of soccer here.”
Kuwait is also looking good. The West Asian nation was a continental power in the 1970s and 1980s, but has yet to add to its 1982 appearance at the World Cup. The Blues started well in qualifying with a 3-2 win at the United Arab Emirates, then picked up a deserved 1-1 draw at home to South Korea.
As some of the former lightweights of Asian football start to climb the ladder, some former big names are making the journey in the opposite direction.
Saudi Arabia continues to struggle. After four successive appearances at the World Cup, the team missed out on the 2010 tournament.
Even with former Barcelona and Netherlands coach Frank Rijkaard at the helm, games in Oman and then at home to Australia have produced just a single point. Back-to-back meetings against Thailand will decide the fate of both teams.
They will also provide an indication as to whether the old order in Asian football is truly changing. AP