Russia 2018 restores belief in Asian football

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Asian football can be proud of its collective performance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup after being spanked four years earlier in Brazil.

The balance of three wins and three draws from 16 matches in arguably the best World Cup of them all is not something to sneer at.

It is a significant improvement on the outcome from 2014, when Asia's four representatives went home empty handed after the group stage with no wins to their credit.

Suddenly, Africa and particularly Central and North America do not appear to be that much better than Asia in terms of quality of football and results on the global stage so - who knows? - the world's most populous group of countries could be poised to overtake CAF and CONCACAF as the game's third strongest confederation after Europe and South America in the not-too-distant future.

The likes of Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt had their moments in Russia and to a lesser degree so did Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama but all of them, with the exception of 'El Tri', failed to survive the group phase.

The World Cup was rather benevolent to Japan, Iran and 2015 AFC Asian Cup finalists Australia and Korea Republic, although all four teams would be entitled to feel that luck was not exactly on their side in Russia.

While the 'Blue Samurai' were the only team that reached the knockout stage, the quality of football shown - albeit irregularly - by the four teams must have raised many eyebrows among those who might have been inclined to dismiss Asian football as the backwater of the world game.

Japan were a poor version of their slick selves in the Asian Cup in Australia three years ago but they rediscovered their free-flowing football in 2018 to beat Colombia and draw with Senegal to reach the last 16.

In one of the most thrilling matches of the competition Akira Nishino's side took a shock 2-0 lead against Belgium.

But the Belgians came back strongly to win an absolute thriller 3-2 and deprive the Japanese of a victory that would not have been at all undeserved.

A little less tactical naivety on their part in the last few moments when Belgium broke away to steal victory would have sent the game into extra time and anything could have happened then.

However the Japanese have very reason to be proud of their effort that brought the best out of the skilful Belgians who, with respect to beaten finalists Croatia, were probably the second strongest team in the competition after eventual winners France.

Bert van Marwijk's Socceroos should also be proud, if not entirely satisfied, after falling to the French in most unfortunate circumstances.

The Australians played their best and most cohesive football in the tournament against Les Bleus but a dubious penalty from Antoine Griezmann and a deflected shot from mercurial midfielder Paul Pogba crushed their dreams of a mini upset after Mile Jedinak had equalised with a penalty.

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The Socceroos succumbed 2-1 but would have been good value for a point in a game that gave coach Didier Deschamps all sorts of problems and forced him to tweak his attacking formation.

Australia generally gave a good account of themselves but they exited the tournament with a solitary point from a 1-1 draw with Denmark. A lack of quality in the front third was decisive.

Iran, too, left the competition with their heads held high after giving Portugal an almighty scare in the group's final match.

Needing a win to go through at Portugal's expense, the spirited Iranians could not go past a 1-1 draw but they left a most favourable impression in all their matches. Carlos Queiroz clearly did a pretty good job with 'Team Melli'.

The Koreans' play generally left a lot to be desired in losses to Sweden 1-0 and Mexico 2-1.

This World Cup was always going to be a struggle after a poor lead-up yet they left their mark on the tournament by causing a boilover in beating Germany 2-0 in their final match to send the world champions packing.

Evidence would suggest that the overall performance of Asia's quartet was strong and positive and a far cry from France 98 when Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia went home with a solitary win and two draws to their credit from 12 matches.

The outcome of Russia 2018 would suggest that the forthcoming 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in January will provide a level of football that strengthens the belief that Asian football is on the rise again after a period of inertia.

ASIA'S 2018 WORLD CUP

Saudi Arabia v Russia 0-5
Saudi Arabia v Uruguay 0-1
Saudi Arabia v Egypt 1-2
Iran v Morocco 1-0
Iran v Spain 0-1
Iran v Portugal 1-1
Australia v France 1-2
Australia v Denmark 1-1
Australia v Peru 0-2
Korea Republic v Sweden 0-1
Korea Republic v Mexico 1-2
Korea Republic v Germany 2-0
Japan v Colombia 2-1
Japan v Senegal 2-2
Japan v Poland 0-1
Japan v Belgium 2-3