Asia's bygone heroes
© AFP

The dust has now settled following last month's final round of qualifying for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with Australia, Japan, Korea Republic and Korea DPR confirming their passage. With the qualified quartet still basking in the afterglow of their triumph, FIFA.com takes a look back at the continent's illustrious qualifying history to savor some of the finest moments, when legends rose to the occasion and helped steer their respective teams to the world's finest footballing stage.

Iran's living legends
Iran, with three FIFA World Cup appearances to reflect upon, boast some of Asia's most recognizable bygone heroes. The most modern example must be the recently-retired Mehdi Mahdavikia, with the 31-year-old figuring prominently in the nation's past four FIFA World Cups. Commencing in 1997 when he scored two spectacular goals in an opening match victory over China en route to the AFC Youth Player of the Year award, he best showcased his creative talents in qualifying for Germany 2006 orchestrating the midfield and playing a key role as Iran sealed progression with a match to spare.

Iran's qualification for France 1998 not only unearthed fresh gems like Mahdavikia, but also established the legendary status of a trio of all-time heroes, namely, goalscoring great Ali Daei, former captain Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi. In the crucial second-leg play-off against the Socceroos in Melbourne, Iran were two goals down with 20 minutes remaining but Azizi set up Bagheri to pull one back, with Azizi himself on the scoresheet minutes later after running on to a Daei pass to seal a famous equaliser, and a remarkable away-goals victory for Team Melli.

"It was the most memorable game in my entire playing career," Azizi told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "I scored the goal of a lifetime and I am particularly happy I made it during such a crucial game."

Australian icon
Despite that disappointment, Australia has unforgettable moments of their own, most notably Mark Schwarzer's heroic saves in the penalty shoot-out against Uruguay four years ago, when the name of the Socceroos custodian was etched into local folklore. Then under Guus Hiddink, the Socceroos entered the final qualifier with a 1-0 away defeat in Montevideo but Mark Bresciano pulled the hosts level on 35 minutes. After 210 minutes of intense battle, Australia would need to win a penalty shoot-out if they were to end 32 years of FIFA World Cup heartbreak.

Schwarzer commenced the spot-kick dual in stunning fashion denying Uruguay's Dario Rodriguez in the first kick with a spectacular block. He then rescued off-target team-mate Mark Viduka by saving from Marcelo Zalayeta, allowing John Aloisi to fire home the fifth and last kick earning Australia a berth to Germany 2006.

Creative legends
Blessed with some of Asia's best creative talents, Japan have been highly successful in recent qualification campaigns for the FIFA World Cup particularly courtesy of their ball-playing midfielders. Generally regarded as foremost amongst Japanese legends is midfield maestro Hidetoshi Nakata, who set up all of his team's three goals in a famous 3-2 win Iran in 1997 which secured the nation's first-ever place at the FIFA World Cup.

Korea Republic, too, owe thanks to one of their former creative stars for their first qualification of the modern era in reaching Mexico 1986, with Huh Jung Moo scoring a decisive winner against rivals Japan to qualify. Now coach of the Taeguk Warriors, Moo recently guided the team to their seventh consecutive appearance on the world stage.