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Asian teams ‘getting closer’ despite World Cup knockout blows

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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.

READ: India denies visas to Pakistan team for Blind T20 World Cup 

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