September 2000, the Asian Cup. The ancient Lebanese port of Saida, where the Mediterranean laps at the Crusader fort as it has for centuries. Over the mountains to the east, the sky was a tumultuous purple. Lightning flickered around the Ferris wheel in the fairground that backed onto the small stadium where the two tournament favorites, Japan and Saudi Arabia, met in their opening group game. The scene was set for something apocalyptic, and Japan delivered, thrashing Saudi Arabia 4-1.
Saudi Arabia had won three of the previous four Asian Cups, losing the 1992 final to Japan in Hiroshima, but this was its Gotterdammerung, the moment at which the balance of power in Asia shifted from West to East. Saudi Arabia sacked its manager, the Czech Milan Macala, and recovered sufficiently under the caretaker of control of Nasser al-Johar to reach the final where they met Japan again. That time it was only 1-0, but Japan was a deserving winner of the tournament, and Saudi Arabia's decline had begun.
Japan went on to win the Asian Cup in 2004, its third title in four, as Saudi Arabia was eliminated in the group stage. Three years later, they met again in an Asian Cup semifinal in Hanoi, and Saudi Arabia gained some measure of revenge with a 3-2 win, only to lose the final 1-0 to Iraq. When the sides meet, it tends to matter, tends to carry a sense of significance.
The draw paired them together again in the group for this year's Asian Cup, but when they meet on Monday the game will carry only a sense of anticlimax, particularly for Saudi Arabia. Japan still needs a point to be sure of qualification for the quarterfinal, but for Saudi Arabia it's too late. A win might salvage some pride, but they are already out. A 2-1 defeat to Syria in its opening game led to the familiar sight of a Saudi manager being sacked midway through the group stage of a major tournament, Jose Peseiro being replaced by Al-Johar, who took charge of the national team for a fifth time. This time, though, the eternal caretaker couldn't work his magic, and Saudi Arabia followed up that first defeat with a 1-0 reverse against Jordan.
Given that the 2010 World Cup was the first since 1990 for which Saudi Arabia failed to qualify, there is reason for significant concern in Riyadh. The semifinal win in 2007 was presented at the time as evidence of a resurgent Saudi Arabia, but it looks now merely a blip in a narrative of decline that has been going on since Saida in 2000.
Not that Japan have exactly impressed so far in Qatar. Historically it's problem has been that it produces technically correct rather than imaginative footballers, which leads to them dominating possession, but struggling to turn that supremacy into goals. Reaching the second round of the World Cup on foreign soil for the first time last summer hinted at progress, but its lack of spark remained an issue. Even in the game that earned Japan most praise, the 3-1 win over Denmark, the goals came from two direct free-kicks and a late break as Denmark desperately sought an equalizer; there was no evidence, in other words, that invention had been added to precision.
The same problems have dogged the Japanese in Qatar. Japan controlled its opening game against Jordan, but stole an equalizer only in the final minute. Against Syria, again Japan bossed possession, again it failed to take full advantage, and after a defensive meltdown handed Syria a penalty from which it equalized, it won the game only thanks to an extremely soft penalty award. There is nothing that breaks the predictable pattern of their midfield play, and as yet the potential of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa has yet to add the dash of the unexpected Japan needs. In that context the switch to a back three under Alberto Zaccheroni, a return to the formational Japan has traditionally favored, feels like a regression. If there was progress during the World Cup it was surely in Takeshi Okada's use of a 4-2-3-1.
The Asian Cup in general has got off to an uncertain start. No side has really impressed -- Uzbekistan and Iran are the only sides to have won both their opening games, although South Korea, its vulnerability to set-plays excepted, has looked perhaps a more likely winner -- and the major trend so far has been the increased resilience of sides previous regarded as minnows, most notably Jordan and Syria.
The situation is perhaps analogous to that Africa faced in 2006 when Togo, Ghana and Angola all qualified for the World Cup for the first time. There were two ways of reading that: either there was a greater depth to talent in Africa than previously and the mid-ranking nations had caught up with the traditional grandees, or the traditional powers had slipped back into the pack. The truth was probably somewhere between the two; Angola and Togo offered little and have since slipped back, but Ghana has reassumed the status it enjoyed in the Sixties as West Africa's pre-eminent team and was the only one of Africa's six finalists at the World Cup to make it through to the last 16.
The performances of Syria and Jordan indicate that the minnows in Asia are at least solid and well-organized, and Qatar and Bahrain perhaps hint at further strength, but others continue to frustrate. North Korea is resilient but seems to struggle to retain defensive stability when trying to add an attacking aspect; Saudi Arabia's decline is palpable; China underachieves bafflingly for a nation of such size and with such an apparent desire for footballing success; Australia is in transition; Japan seems constantly poised on the brink of a great leap forward without ever kicking on.
South Korea was competent in despatching Bahrain and had the better of a draw against Australia. The absence of Park Chu-Young to injury is a major loss, but after over half a century of failure in the Asian Cup, this could at last be their time. Only a third of the tournament has gone, but none of its major rivals seems to be in anything approaching top form. For 20 years Japan against Saudi Arabia has been a clash of the continent's superpowers; on Monday it looks like something of far less import.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.