Asia will again be unrepresented in the FIFA World Cup 2022 quarter-finals but several upset wins and vibrant displays have many in the continent feeling that the gap to the best teams is closing.
The first World Cup in the Arab world was also the second held entirely on the globe’s most populous continent and heavyweights Argentina, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Denmark all tasted defeat at the hands of Asian confederation teams.
Japan, South Korea and Australia made it out of the group stage for a record representation in the last 16 but none were able emulate the 2002 Taegeuk Warriors and the North Korean side of 1966 by making the quarter-finals.
They did not bow out meekly, though, with Australia taking Argentina down to the wire in a 2-1 defeat, Japan losing on penalties to Croatia after a 1-1 draw, and South Korea battling until the end despite conceding four early goals to Brazil.
“Brazil deserved to win … but it has been extraordinary what has happened with Korean football over the last four years,” South Korea coach Paulo Bento said after the 4-1 defeat.
“We were very bold in how we approached the game today – even though we were low on energy we were loyal to our style to the end and I was very proud of that.”
The one major disappointment was the performance of host nation and Asian champions Qatar, who looked out of their depth throughout and were the only one of the six teams from the confederation to fail to register a win.
Their neighbours Saudi Arabia stood the football world on its head, however, when they came from behind to beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1 in their opening match in what statisticians Gracenote credited as the biggest shock in World Cup history.
The Saudis were unable to capitalise on that win and departed after the group stage following two losses but will turn their attention to the next Asian Cup with renewed confidence.
Iran, perhaps distracted by the turmoil of anti-government protests back home, were pummelled 6-2 by England in their opener but restored credibility with a 2-0 win over Wales before bowing out in a 1-0 loss to the United States.
‘Can win on world stage’
It was left to East Asian sides Japan and South Korea and southerly appendage Australia, who switched from the Oceania confederation in 2006, to fly the Asian flag in the knockout rounds.
Japan stunned both Germany and Spain 2-1 to top a tough group even after they suffered a 1-0 shock themselves at the hands of Costa Rica.
“Our victories over Spain and Germany, two of the top teams in the world, is something that gives us a great confidence,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu. “Of course, there are many things that we still have to learn, but we can win on the world stage. All the people that are involved in the football in Asia as well as Japan I think can share our happiness.”
South Korea’s never-say-die attitude earned them a last-gasp 2-1 win over Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal that sealed their place in the last 16, Hwang Hee-chan striking in stoppage time to secure a famous win.
Of all the success for the Asian confederation sides, Australia’s progressing to the last 16 was perhaps the most surprising given they had scraped into the tournament via two playoffs.
Graham Arnold’s unheralded squad rebounded from a 4-1 loss to France to beat both Tunisia and Denmark 1-0 and reach the knockout stages for only the second time.
“It’s great for Asia,” said Arnold. “I do believe that Asian football is getting stronger and stronger and stronger, and we’re catching up quickly.”