While Japan stole the headlines with a near-miss against Belgium, South Korea and Iran also spearheaded a solid World Cup for Asia
While Japan went close to reaching the last eight and South Korea beating defending champions Germany stand out, all five of Asia’s sides had moments to savour at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
As France celebrate in the wake of Sunday’s 4-2 victory over Croatia in the Moscow final, preparations will ramp up for January’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
After a dismal showing at Brazil 2014 – where four Asian sides garnered only three points, the performance was much improved in Russia as the continent had five representatives for the first time.
Japan, Iran, South Korea and even Saudi Arabia all won matches, while Australia held Denmark to a draw and were within nine minutes of sharing the spoils with ultimate champions France.
The AFC nations outperformed those from Africa and CONCACAF. None of Africa’s five nations progressed to the knockout stage, while Mexico were CONCACAF’s sole representative in the Round of 16. But the teams from North and Central America won one fewer match, with Panama and Costa Rica losing five of six games and failing to register a victory.
Without a doubt, the Japanese were Asia’s best at the 2018 tournament, having begun their campaign with an impressive 2-1 victory over 2014 quarter-finalists, Colombia. A subsequent 2-2 draw with Senegal put them on the cusp of the knock-out stages, and even though they would lose 1-0 to Poland in their final group game, they squeaked through to the last 16 for the first time since 2010.
Then they stunned a highly-rated Belgium to lead 2-0 with just over 20 minutes to go in Rostov before quick-fire goals from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini brought the Red Devils level. The Japanese had a chance to steal the game through an added-time Keisuke Honda free-kick that stung the palms of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, followed by a corner.
But their hearts were broken just seconds later when the resulting counter-attack saw Nacer Chadli score a 94th-minute winner as Belgium advanced to a last-eight meeting with Brazil.
For Japan, Akira Nishino did a remarkable job, considering that he’d taken over as manager just a couple of months before the World Cup after the acrimonious exit of Vahid Halilhodzic. On the pitch, attackers Takashi Inui and Yuya Osaka stood out, while centre-back Gen Shoji was a mountain of strength, alongside veteran Maya Yoshidi. And Galatasaray left-back, Yuto Nagatomo, who turns 32 in September, turned back the years with his energy going forward.
The Koreans began the tournament in a disappointing fashion as they were outmuscled 1-0 by Sweden before losing 2-1 to Mexico to effectively end their hopes of advancing.
But their 2-0 victory over Germany in their last group game at the Kazan Arena will go down in folklore as a proud moment in Asian sports history. The goals — from Kim Young-Gwon and Son Heung-min — came after 90 minutes following an inspired defensive display, and heroics from Cho Hyun-woo, Asia’s top goalkeeper at the tournament.
And who will forget the sight of Tottenham Hotspur’s Son tapping the ball into the empty net after goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had bombed forward, as desperate Germany threw caution to the wind?
Iran caught the eye, too, as they secured only their second victory in World Cup finals’ history by defeating Morocco 1-0 in their opening game. They made 2010 champions Spain work hard as they lost 1-0 in their second group game before giving Portugal an almighty scare as they went close to defeating the reigning European champions after a 1-1 thriller.
Carlos Queioz, who managed his native Portugal in the 2010 World Cup, helped make Iran a combative and intimidating side. Defenders Morteza Pouraliganji and Ramin Rezaeian stood tall. Goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand saved a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, while Sardar ‘Iranian Messi’ Azmoun showed that he is maturing into a forward of world-class.
Australia ultimately paid the price for their lack of a world-class striker — they failed to score a goal in open play as veteran Tim Cahill made only one substitute appearance — but acquitted themselves well against opponents in the top 12 of the FIFA rankings. Even Peru, who beat them 2-0 in their final group game, are 11th in the world and finished third in the 2015 Copa America, above Brazil and Uruguay.
One point from three games is not a fair reflection of their endeavours. Winger Mathew Leckie, defenders Trent Sainbury and Aziz Behich, plus midfielder Aaron Mooy, all had strong tournaments.
Even Saudi Arabia salvaged some pride after conceding six goals in opening losses to Russia and Uruguay to pull off a surprise 2-1 victory over Mo Salah’s Egypt in their final group game. Their sweetest moment came when Salem Al-Dawsari scored a 95th-minute winner after a delectable pass from midfielder Abdullah Otayf.
The critics will continue to argue that Asia still can’t compete with Europe or South America, and that bar is set too low.
But given how poor results were in 2014, this was a significant step forward for the AFC. And, on home soil in Qatar in 2022, Asians can expect further improvements.