Which Asian team will go the furthest in the World Cup – Saudi Arabia, Australia, Japan, South Korea or Iran?
AFC nations have never reached a final, and this year the region’s record five representatives face tough groups in Russia
Asian teams have been involved in the Fifa World Cup since 1938, when Indonesia became the first from the AFC to go to the finals in France. While there is no Indonesian interest 80 years on – Radja Nainggolan’s omission from the Belgium squad and subsequent international retirement putting an end to that – a record five AFC nations are representing the region in Russia this summer.
And they will all be hoping to improve on the Asian showing at the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago where not one of the four teams won a game. So who is likely to put that right this time, and just how far can they go?
Saeed Al Owairan's brilliant goal for Saudi Arabia vs Belgium during the 1994 World Cup.pic.twitter.com/3XHgiBxiAl
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) 1 May 2017
Saudi Arabia – Group A
The Saudis arrive in Russia at 67 on the Fifa World Ranking, which puts them behind the hosts (66), Egypt (46) and Uruguay (17).
They will struggle to get out of the group and may even have their work cut out to get a point, with Russia first up in the tournament opener, a game they are largely expected to lose. Taking points from the other teams – unless Mohamed Salah is out for Egypt – is a big ask.
Their best performance at a tournament was at USA in 1994 when they beat Belgium and Morocco to make the knockout stages. They have never met any of their group opponents at a previous World Cup.
Saudi Arabia v Russia (June 14, 11pm)
Saudi Arabia v Uruguay (June 20, 11pm)
Saudi Arabia v Egypt (June 25, 10pm)
— Saudi National Team (@SaudiNT_EN) 4 June 2018
Iran – Group B
The Lions of Mesopotamia are the continent’s best team but Carlos Queiroz’s side have been handed a tough draw with Portugal and Spain in the group.
It’s harsh after they romped home in qualifying, finishing seven points clear of second placed South Korea, and they arrive at 36 in the world rankings.
On paper they should beat Morocco and could get a result against Portugal, who they played at the 2006 World Cup.
The European champions overperformed in winning Euro 2016 when the senior members of the side were two years younger.
Iran could make the knockouts in their fifth World Cup where they would be a handful for most sides.
Iran v Morocco (June 15, 11pm)
Iran v Spain (June 21, 2am)
Iran v Portugal (June 26, 2am)
Australia have the best nickname in the FIFA World Cup field, but what else do you need to know about the Socceroos?
Fernando Fiore has the scoop! pic.twitter.com/JgFOtIqNdj
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) 22 May 2018
Australia – Group C
Bottom of their group with 0 points, it was a bad World Cup last time for the Aussies and they have been made to work hard to make it to Russia.
Third in the group on goal difference to Saudi Arabia and only a point behind group winners Japan, the Socceroos then beat Syria in an Asia play-off, then had two legs against Honduras before booking their ticket.
This was their third qualifying campaign after 2010 and 2014 since joining the AFC in 2006, a move that has not always been welcomed.
The team are still reliant on Tim Cahill but recently-appointed manager Bert van Marwijk will hope to unearth a star from his younger crop.
They have never met any of their group at the World Cup and on paper 40th-ranked Australia should struggle against Denmark (12), France (7) and Peru (11). Anything other than finishing bottom again would be a success.
Australia v France (June 16, 6pm)
Australia v Denmark (June 21, 8pm)
Australia v Peru (June 26, 10pm)
South Korea – Group F
The Taegeuk Warriors have been to the last nine World Cups, including Russia this summer, and this is their 10th.
They sit 61st in the Fifa rankings and face holders Germany, the number one team in the world, along with Mexico (15) and Sweden (23).
In Son Hyeong-min they have a match-winner but he would need to score more than his one-in-three rate or get some help with the goals to reach the knockouts.
Son scored in the pre-World Cup friendly against Honduras and it was a belter, but the teams they are playing are a cut above and it will need the forward to offer his club form.
Semi-finalists when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002, South Korea limped over the line to make it to Russia and were bottom of their group in Brazil.
Recent friendlies have not been much better: a draw with Jamaica, losing to Northern Ireland and Poland in March’s friendly break.
They played Germany before at USA 1994 (and in their first ever World Cup when they were West Germany) and faced in Mexico at France 1998.
South Korea v Sweden (June 18, 8pm)
South Korea v Mexico (June 23, 11pm)
South Korea v Germany (June 27, 10pm)
Japan – Group H
This is the sixth World Cup for the Blue Samurai and they have never gone beyond the round of 16. This year, despite prime minister Shinzo Abe saying he has dreamed of a Russia v Japan final, they are unlikely to match that.
Japan are 60th in the rankings and well behind Colombia (16), Poland (10) and Senegal (28). Last time out they lost all three games and went home bottom of the group.
That could happen again to a team that has had a bizarre build-up, including sacking coach Vahid Hahilhodzic, who is now suing the Japanese FA for 1 yen.
If he was let go because he had lost key players such as Keisuke Honda then those players need to perform in Russia. Their last game at Brazil 2014 was a 4-1 loss to Colombia, something they can put right immediately.
Japan v Colombia (June 19, 8pm)
Japan v Senegal (June 24, 11pm)
Japan v Poland (June 28, 10pm)
The countries with the most #WorldCup Tweets since December:
— Twitter Sports (@TwitterSports) 22 May 2018
Rankings correct until June 7.