With Asia making their mark with some magical moments in Qatar, the 2026 FIFA World Cup now cannot come soon enough

Despite the heartbreak of losing to Croatia on penalties in the round of 16, Japan can still look back on a memorable 2022 FIFA World Cup that saw them beat both Germany and Spain. Marc Atkins/Getty Images

DOHA, Qatar -- So after a fortnight that began with anticipation, delivered plenty of drama and excitement, but ultimately ended in despair, Asia's participation at the 2022 FIFA World Cup came to an end on Monday evening.

Within a span of six hours, the continent's two remaining hopes -- Japan and South Korea -- both suffered elimination from the tournament's round of 16 albeit in vastly contrasting manners.

Japan, having done brilliantly to take 2018 runners-up Croatia to penalties with a 1-1 draw after extra-time, then proceeded to be abysmal in a 3-1 shootout defeat, while South Korea were unable to pull off the mother of all upsets as they were thrashed 4-1 by record five-time champions Brazil.

Looking purely at the statistics, it is obviously disappointing that no Asian side has been able to reach the last eight once more -- with North Korea and South Korea in 1966 and 2002 respectively the only occasions this feat has been achieved.

Yet, a closer look at performances and results will show how far the continent has come even from just four years ago.

Back in 2018, only Japan were able to advance from the group stage and, even then, they barely scraped through on fair play points.

This time around, including Australia -- who compete as a member of the Asian Football Confederation -- three of the AFC's representatives appeared in the knockout round of the first time ever.

And more so than just making progress in terms of advancing further in the tournament, it was the magnitude of the results that was provided the true glory for Asian football at this year's World Cup.

Saudi Arabia, having fallen behind to a Lionel Messi opener, incredibly managed to fight back and beat mighty Argentina 2-1 in their opening Group C tie for arguably Asian football's greatest win at the tournament.

Japan did the same twice against two of the past three champions, first stunning Germany and then doing the same against Spain in a game they needed to win to realistically stand a chance of progressing into the last 16.

After a slow start, South Korea also had a massive task on their hands in their final group-stage tie against Portugal, yet overcame falling behind after just five minutes to come back and beat the European giants 2-1 with a dramatic 91st-minute winner.

Even in a group-stage elimination, Iran also stood tall despite the obvious distraction of political strife and turmoil back home -- managing to claim one victory over Wales with two thrilling injury-time goals.

And while hosts Qatar ultimately disappointed with three straight defeats, even they have a moment of their own to look back on with Mohammed Muntari bagging their first-ever goal at a World Cup against Senegal.

That strike was one of just 22 goals the six AFC teams combined for over the past fortnight or so. 22 individual highlights that lit up football's biggest stage.

As Asian football bids farewell to the World Cup for another four years, it will have no shortage of magical moments to look back on.

The trick is to have enough of these to combine for a prolonged and sustainable charge at the tournament, at least into the quarterfinals but -- in the long run -- imperatively even further.

Asia has certainly shown it can compete on the World Cup. The only problem now is the four-year wait for the next one.