CAPE TOWN, June 30, 2010 (AFP) - Asia`s World Cup may be over with Japan`s agonising elimination in a penalty shoot-out, but the Asian Football Confederation teams did enough to reaffirm the region`s growing stature.
Two out of four made the last 16, compared to just one out of five from Africa, and they did it in historical fashion with neither South Korea or Japan ever going beyond the group phase on foreign soil before.
Japan came into the tournament under a dark cloud after losing four games in a row, but they left with their dignity restored after beating Denmark 3-1 and Cameroon 1-0, and only narrowly losing 1-0 to the Netherlands.
It put them into the knockout rounds and they were unlucky to fall 5-3 on penalties to Paraguay on Tuesday after the game ended in a scoreless draw.
They awoke to headlines full of praise on Wednesday.
"Surprised the world; endured a gruelling 120 minutes," the Asahi Shimbun said, while the top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun declared that their "bravery will be remembered".
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan hailed the side`s performance.
"They showed the world the real strength of Japanese football by working as a team," Kan said. "I applaud them for their brave battles."
South Korea won similar plaudits for their exploits, which tempted millions of people onto the streets of Seoul and other major Korean cities to watch their games live on big screen televisions.
They came into the tournament among an elite group of just six nations to have qualified for seven World Cups in a row, along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain.
But unlike the rest, before South Africa they could only boast of one win on foreign soil - a 2-1 victory over Togo in 2006.
They added to that here with an opening 2-0 victory over Greece, before crashing 4-1 to Argentina and then drawing 2-2 with Nigeria.
But squandered chances saw them lose 2-1 to Uruguay to draw a curtain on their campaign.
Despite failing in their mission to make the semi-finals, coach Huh Jung-Moo had nothing but praise for his players.
"My players did their best. We have the capability, but we have seen here that we have areas to improve on," he said.
"It would have been a lot better if we had played with a bit more confidence, but I feel hopeful for the future of South Korean football. The players are improving, our game is getting better."
While they shined, Australia, who made the last 16 in Germany 2006, flopped and with coach Pim Verbeek departing a shake up of the old guard is expected.
The Socceroos` campaign got off to a disastrous start when they were routed 4-0 by the Germans and had influential midfielder Tim Cahill sent off.
They kept themselves in mathematical contention for the knockout phase when they drew 1-1 with Ghana and produced their best performance with a pulsating 2-1 victory over the higher-ranked Serbia.
But they ultimately lost out on a place in the last 16 on goal difference.
Captain Lucas Neill admitted their naivete in losing to Germany, but insisted they did themselves proud in the way they recovered.
"The way we conducted ourselves in the next two games is something we can really be proud of," Neill said. "Unfortunately, it wasn`t enough."
North Korea, at their first World Cup in 44 years, were the one team truly out of their depth.
They put up an impressive performance in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil but were routed 7-0 by Portugal and 3-0 by the Ivory Coast.
Coach Kim Jong-Hun called it a learning experience, but the fate of the team remains uncertain as they returned to their impoverished communist homeland on Wednesday stony-faced.
The next challenge for all four is the Asian Cup in Qatar in January.
BDST: 1559hrs, June 30, 2010