DOHA: Asian teams came crashing back down to earth in the World Cup last 16 but the region still enjoyed its best-ever tournament to suggest it is closing the gap on the global elite.
The continent’s finest will be back in Qatar for the 2023 Asian Cup and, if the World Cup is anything to go by, it could be the finest yet.
Australia, Japan and South Korea -- three of the six Asian Football Confederation teams at the World Cup -- reached the first knockout stage.
It was the first time three AFC sides had got to the last 16, even if South Korea in particular suffered a sobering defeat, going down 4-1 to highly fancied Brazil.
There would be no repeat of 2002, when South Korea reached the semi-finals as co-hosts, still the best World Cup showing by an Asian side. The Koreans did though defeat Portugal in the group phase in Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, also part of the AFC, pulled off the biggest shock of the tournament in coming from behind to defeat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1 in the group stage.
Japan also roared back to stun former champions Spain and Germany and top Group E, before suffering a heartbreaking defeat to 2018 finalists Croatia on penalties.
Speaking ahead of the game, defender Kou Itakura said: “I feel that Asia is getting closer to Europe.”
Hajime Moriyasu’s side boasts a growing number of players in top European leagues.
Eight of his 26-man World Cup squad play in Germany’s Bundesliga and Moriyasu said Japan’s success was good for all of Asia.
“In order for Japan to win the World Cup we have been nurturing our young players and trying to create an environment where we can produce good players,“ said Moriyasu.
“At the same time, the JFA (Japan Football Association) also has a target of contributing to Asian football and has been sending Japanese coaches to many countries in the region to try to improve their level.”
He added that the standard of Asian football would have to improve further if teams were to have a chance of becoming world champions.
- ‘Asia throwing money’ -
Expectations had been low in Australia before the tournament in Qatar, with concerns that the supply line that produced Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka is no longer producing such quality players.
The Socceroos proved the doubters wrong by beating Tunisia and Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark to reach the last 16, equalling their best World Cup performance.
They then pushed a Messi-inspired Argentina all the way before going down fighting in a 2-1 defeat.
But coach Graham Arnold, concerned about the future of football in Australia, wants more government investment.
“Asia is throwing a lot of money into football and we need to catch up,“ he warned.
Arnold, whose future as coach is uncertain, said Asian football was going from strength to strength.
“People can sit back at home and their opinion is maybe Saudi Arabia is not that good, or Japan. Look at what they have done,“ he said.
It was not all good news for AFC teams.
Qatar will be hosts and holders at the 2023 Asian Cup, which was moved out of China because of Covid rules, and will need to improve fast if they want to defend their title.
There are no firm dates yet for the tournament but it could be moved to early 2024.
Qatar lost all three games at the World Cup and scored just once, the worst performance in history by a host team.
“You can use statistics how you want but we need to make our own assessments,“ said coach Felix Sanchez. - AFP