Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am

The motto is 'The Future is Asia', but the continent's four representatives in the World Cup could be excused for dwelling on the immediate past as they come to terms with the hands that fate dealt them at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

The draw did the four AFC representatives no favours. Asian sides face an uphill struggle to avoid repeating their bleak performance at Germany 2006.

With Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, world soccer's governing body, continuing to sing the praises of African football and dropping hints about allocating the host region more World Cup places, Asian teams could be excused for feeling left in the cold ahead of South Africa 2010 and already worried about holding onto their 4.5 spots for the 2014 finals in Brazil.

Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Australia will start as outsiders to advance to the round of 16 after they found themselves in tough groups laden with seasoned European, African and South American opponents.

The Japanese, who failed to win a game at Germany 2006, begin their campaign in Bloemfontein against Cameroon on June 14, and will also face the Netherlands and Denmark. South Korea take on Greece, Argentina and Nigeria, while North Korea are grouped with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.

Yet the AFC's number-one ranked side, Australia, who start against three-time champions Germany in Durban on June 13, have tried to put a positive spin on a horror draw that also pits them with Ghana and Serbia in group D.

It might have been enough to drive their teetotal Dutch coach Pim Verbeek to drink, but he relaxed with a non-alcoholic cocktail before discussing what lay ahead.

'Personally, I love to play Germany in the first game ... it's a big game and the way they play suits us as well,' Verbeek said.

The 21st-ranked Australians last faced Germany at the 2005 Confederations Cup in Frankfurt, where they lost 4-3. 'I prefer to have a big game immediately. We're preparing ourselves at altitude [near Johannesburg] and the physicians say it's easier to go from altitude to sea level, so we'll have to show them what we can do. It's great that our fans are based in Durban because we'll need all their support.'

Already some optimistic Australian journalists have been speculating that if the Socceroos finished second in their pool and England topped the relatively easy group C, there might be an Ashes-style contest in the round of 16.

Verbeek said: 'That could be nice and mean a bonus, the last 2 per cent of the motivation needed [in the final group game] so we can play England in the next round, but let's concentrate on the first matches.'

Qualifying from Oceania, the Aussies defied expectations to make the knockout stages at the 2006 World Cup, but with an ageing squad they will find it hard to match those achievements in South Africa.

After building up their other group B rivals, Serbia and Ghana, in some detail, Germany coach Joachim Low's brief comment about the Socceroos was: 'Australia is going to be an important game for us and it will be important to win.'

New Zealand journalists who saw the All Whites drawn with world champions Italy, but also less tricky Slovakia and Paraguay, cheekily predicted their side would reach the last 16, with the winless Aussies knocked out in the group stages.

Asia's unspoken unease about its future allocation of places comes after Blatter's comments last year. He said if African teams performed well at the 2010 World Cup 'we will have to change the numbers, but we'll do it step by step'.

With Europe providing all four of the semi-finalists at Germany 2006 and South American teams winning nine World Cups between them, under-performing Asia seems to be the obvious target.

The draw was an overlong evening affair before a restless audience that had an hour of video presentations, speeches and musical performances before the actual draw began. Many of the visitors who would have recognised Gauteng-born Charlize Theron (her accent was more Californian than Capetonian) probably wondered who special guests Proteas cricketer Makhaya Ntini and Springbok rugby captain John Smit were.

Asia were represented by Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Qatar and South Korea, as each group played a promotional video, lasting no more than four minutes, singing the praises of its country. Straws were drawn to decide the order in which the presentations were played.

David Beckham strutted in fashionably late, but his impact on the England 2018 campaign was reduced when Australian Sports Minister Kate Ellis strategically placed autograph-seeking Aussie school children in his path. With the media watching, he politely served the children's needs, meaning the London-born ambassador unwittingly became part of a huge photo-op for one of its strongest rivals to host the 2018 World Cup.

The harsh reality of the draw will probably mean the two nations won't get the chance to meet on the field next summer, but they still engaged in a battle of sorts on South African soil, 187 days before the real thing kicks off.