The greatest sporting upsets masterminded by Asia

South Africa's Lwazi Mvovo (left) in action with Japan's Akihito Yamada.
South Africa's Lwazi Mvovo (left) in action with Japan's Akihito Yamada. PHOTO: REUTERS

Billed as a colossal mismatch and a David versus Goliath encounter, no one expected anything other than a one-sided win for South Africa in their opening Rugby World Cup group stage match against Japan on Saturday.

The Asian side have appeared at every edition of the quadrennial tournament, but have managed only a solitary victory – over Zimbabwe in Belfast in 1991 – while racking up 21 loses. Their opponents meanwhile, were the aristocrats of the game and two-time world champions.

Against all odds, the Japanese pulled off a stunning 34-32 victory to send shockwaves reverberating around the sporting world.

In celebration of what has already been hailed as one of the great sporting moments in Asia’s history, we look back at other standout milestones by Asian athletes and teams.

1. North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in a group stage of the 1966 World Cup

One of the biggest upsets on football’s grandest stage saw debutants North Korea, seen as the tournament’s whipping boys, clinch a shock victory against their more illustrious opponents. The match at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough was set up as a winner-takes-all with the Italians needing only a draw to advance to the knockout stage. But the then two-time world champions were eliminated thanks to a low drive from Pak Doo Ik three minutes before half-time, as the Koreans held on in the second half for a famous triumph. 

2. South Korean golfer Yang Yong Eun beats Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship 

Yang Yong Eun of South Korea. PHOTO: AFP 

Yang was ranked 110th in the world, but that mattered little to the former weightlifter who rose to the occasion in magnificent fashion. He started the final round trailing Woods, a 14-time Major winner, by two shots but snatched the lead with an eagle on the 14th hole. Woods, who had never lost a Major while leading after three rounds, could not respond and finished second. Yang’s win remains the only time an Asian-born golfer has won one of men’s golf’s four Majors.

3. India upset the West Indies in the 1983 Cricket World Cup final

The all-conquering West Indies team are chasing a hat-trick of titles, while India were in their first final, yet the first-timers showed little sign of stage fright. They batted first and compiled a relatively-low score of 183, and most expected the West Indies to easily eclipse. Yet they were dismissed for 140, as India completed a memorable 43-run victory to prevail at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in England. 

4. Liu Xiang hurdles his way into the record books at the 2004 Athens Olympics

China's Liu Xiang (far right) at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. ST FILE PHOTO

The lanky Chinese became his country’s first Olympic track and field champion with his victory in the 110m hurdles and also delivered a message to the rest of the world, defying the traditional thinking that Asian athletes could not succeed in sprint events at the top level. Liu obliterated the field, finishing almost three tenths of a second faster than the runner-up Terrence Trammell of America. Liu’s winning time of 12.91sec was a new Olympic record and equalled the world mark set by Colin Jackson of Wales in 1993.

5. Somluck Kamsing wins boxing gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

The Thai featherweight boxer became his country’s first Olympic champion thanks to this fairytale run in the United States. His opponent in the final was Serafim Todorov, who was a three-time amateur world champion and the overwhelming favourite after beating a young Floyd Mayweather Jr in the semi-finals. But Somluck paid little heed to his rival’s reputation, and defeated Todorov 8-5 to ensure his place in the history books.

6. Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan stuns Andre Agassi in the 2002 Wimbledon

Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES/CARL RECINE

With seven Grand Slams under his belt, there seem little danger for third-seeded Agassi against his unseeded opponent, who had never previously advanced beyond the second round of any Major. But the former Wimbledon champion had no answer to Paradorn’s powerful groundstrokes and was comprehensively beaten 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 in just 1hr 47min, leaving the spectators on Centre Court equally shell-shocked as the American tennis star.

7. Japan denies United States a fourth softball gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The American team had been near-unbeatable and were riding on a 22-match winning streak that stretched back to 2000. They had also beaten the Japanese twice in the earlier rounds of the tournament by a combined score of 11-1. But that run came to an end over seven innings as Japan claimed a 3-1 win to capture its first Olympic gold in the sport.

8. Japan make history at the 2011 Women's World Cup final 

Homare Sawa of Japan lifts the trophy after winning the FIFA Women's World Cup Final in 2011. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES/MATTHEW CHILDS

Japan had not beaten the United States in 25 meetings, losing 22 of those. Yet they finally ended that barren spell in the most dramatic of fashions at the full-house Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt. Twice the US took the lead, but the Japanese fought back to equalise and take the match to a penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two saves and defender Saki Kumagai to score the winning penalty in a 3-1 win, as Japan became the first Asian team to win a Fifa World Cup final.