Archive for July, 2007

Winners and Losers

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

With the tournament over, it is time to look to take a retrospective look, and see who were the winners and losers, apart from obvious champions.

The Favourites.

It was clear from the start that there were four favourites for the competition. These four teams were Asia’s top four in the FIFA rankings, and the AFC had kept them at the top of each group, playing the host nations only on the final day of group matches. Players for the four teams were featured on the posters for the tournament – these four were made to be the four semi-finalists.

The four are of course, Japan, Iran, South Korea and Australia. The order in which to place them was uncertain, unless you travelled to the tournament from Australia. Never has a team travelled to a tournament with so much arrogance and certainty. These were the big boys, the stars from Europe, coming to show Asia how to play.

It all started unravelling for Australia in the first match, when only a fortuitous equaliser gave them a draw against Oman, when the game should have been out of reach. If this was not bad enough, then the comeback was spoiled by Iraq – who quite simply wiped the floor with them. Strangely enough, all the Australian supporters I have spoken too since the event accepted the defeats and the simple obvious fact – the team did not play well enough. Not so the team, coach Graham Arnold just followed one excuse with another – there are too many to list – they only thing that apparently was not wrong was the coach himself. Although Australia squeezed through the group, they were a defeated force even before the penalty shoot-out against the Japanese.

The Koreans also had difficulties in the group. The opening draw with Saudi Arabia was considered acceptable, and a draw with Bahrain might have been as well, had they got one. Instead they fell to a late goal, after a half of football which they dominated without scoring. This was a portent of things to come, for after they had qualified at the expense of their Indonesian hosts, they played three knock out games, without either scoring or conceding a goal. With two shoot-outs won, and the middle won lost, this gave them an undeserved third place – but it is clear that these players are never going to be able to recreate the magic achieved by the Hiddink teams with the advantages of a following wind, a home referee and a little bit of magic.

The Japanese and Iranians fared better than the others, in that they got out of their groups with less trouble. But then the Iranians could not break down the Korean defence, while the Japanese were shown the door by the Saudis in the most entertaining of the knock out games.

Winners – none
Big Sore Losers – Australia.

The Hosts

As no one expected the hosts to achieve much, you may have said that the quartet had everything to gain and nothing to lose. This turned out not to be the case. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand all managed to win a game, with Vietnam and the Thais ending the group stage on four points. Meanwhile Malaysia lost all three, and not only that, they conceded five goals in each of the first two matches.

In the conclusion, three of the hosts, while not ever threatening to win the competition, went out with honour, while one was left examining the entrails and wondering how the others have pulled ahead of them in the last decade.

Winners – Thailand, Indonesia and especially Viet Nam
Losers – Malaysia

The Arabs

Six nations came in from the Arabian Gulf countries, having competed with each other back in January’s Gulf Cup. It was amazing how many had changed coach in the meantime. Grouped into three pairs, the competition was lined up to give one Arab winner and one Arab loser in each of the groups they are in.

In Group A, Oman – who had looked impressive in the Gulf Cup, (but had since changed coaches) started well in almost beating Australia, but then fell to the hosts, Thailand. Iraq – who had looked disorganised in the Gulf Cup, (but had since changed coaches) trumped Oman’s achievement with a win over Australia, and shepherded Oman out of contention with a 0-0 draw in the final match – and then moved on from Thailand, beating Vietnam in the Bangkok quarter-final, and South Korea on penalties in the KL semi to reach the final.

In Group B, the coaches had seen more action with their teams. Dzemaludin Musovic, Qatar’s Yugoslavian coach did not over impress in the Gulf Cup, but his team had won the Asian games title (on home turf), while UAE had the enigmatic Frenchman, Bruno Metsu – who had led them to the Gulf Cup (on home turf). Metsu soon needed the excuses as his team lost the first two games, but they then turned the tables to knock out Qatar – who should have built on their two group draws to qualify for the knock out rounds.

Then in Group D, we had Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, with four successive World Cup qualifications and three Asian Cup titles. A semi-final defeat to the hosts in the Gulf Cup was enough for them to change coaches, bringing in the Brazilian Helio dos Anjos – who had never been in Asia, or International level before. Bahrain had lost to Saudi in a group game in the Gulf Cup, and to Oman in the semi final, so they also changed coaches, bringing in the Czech Milan Macala, who had been successful in the past with Oman. Bahrain were both shocked, (losing to Indonesia in the opening game) and then created a shock (beating South Korea in the next match), while Saudi Arabia did enough – with the important late goal against the hosts – and then turned on the style to beat Bahrain and reach the knock out rounds. They continued to play in style until they met their match in the final

Winners – Saudi Arabia.
Ultimate, Big Time winners – Iraq
Losers – UAE, Qatar.

The Others

I have left out China and Uzbekistan. China, despite being in the last final, are not yet one of the big teams, and although expectation in their home country was not great, they were expected to reach the quarter finals, at least. Uzbekistan, is an out of the way place, generally ignored by the rest of Asian football (except when they have to go there). Both did their best to humiliate their hosts, and when it came down to it, their meeting was crucial. The Uzbeks won this, and although beaten by the Saudis in the next match – went home with more pride.

Winner – Uzbekistan
Loser – China.

The AFC

The logistics of a tournament in four countries are expansive, and the fact they carried it off at all is a credit to both the AFC and the countries concerned. Naturally, there were complications, such as the lights going off in Indonesia’s first game and Iraq waiting for hours to check into a hotel – but overall it was a success.

Not so in other ways. The AFC referee’s committee suspended four officials for poor performances during the tournament, and had removed some from the list for failing fitness tests before it started. In one case, they cited a single off side decision as a reason for the suspension (despite the advice of referee’s committees the world over, that a referee should not be marked down over a single decision). Overall, the standard of refereeing was patchy at best, from the first debatably penalty in the first game, at least through to the inconsistencies of the third and fourth play-off. The AFC referee’s committee needs to launch an investigation into the standards of officials, and they need to look into the referees more, before selecting them for a major tournament. These things, of course will not happen

Then there were the crowds – or more to the point, lack of them. At least the AFC knows what to do here – lie! From the first game, where the AFC listed the crowd as 35,000 (but which was actually less than half that), through to the final, where the official figure says 60,000 (but where were they? – this must be 20,000 too high), crowds only led up to expectations when the hosts were concerned – and even then this did not help Malaysia, where they did not turn up or Thailand – who only had a reasonable crowd when they played Australia. And all this at a time when the tour they tried to ban (Manchester United) was playing to packed houses across the continent.

Marketing for a tournament of this size is a must, but so is realism. While a crowd of 20,000 looks out of place in the cavernous national stadiums of South East Asia, they would have looked better if played in smaller venues. The Vietnamese do not watch a neutral game in Hanoi, when the national team played the day before – but what if the game was in Hue? Would this have attracted more attention? Does Thailand stop at Bangkok, or does it extend to Chang Mai? But without marketing, this is nothing – the crowd in Palembang was limited almost to the tourists from the two teams (but then Indonesia were live on the TV at the same time), and in Ho Chi Minh city, I saw more people celebrating the result in town afterwards then at the stadium.

Winners – The Logistics committee, and the four local organising committees
Losers – The referee’s committee, marketing and imagination.

Single Goal takes the Cup to Iraq.

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

It is a match that has been built up beyond the simplicity of eleven men playing eleven for a football cup. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s semi-final, when car bombs killed over 50 people as the Iraqis celebrated their victory, the match is now viewed as a key symbol for the people of Iraq. The fact that the team includes a mixture from the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions means that its success shows what can be achieved if the people of Iraq are united in a common cause. The bombs show that some are opposed to anything so idealistic.

Not surprisingly, with all options available to both teams, both have selected the same starting line up as they used in the semi-finals. The match may be billed as between the strong Iraqi defence, and the free scoring Saudi attack, but early play does not bear this out. In the first ten minutes, Iraq come close on two occasions, with both Qusay and Younes Khalef coming close. Iraq may still be in the 4-2-3-1 formation as they used in the semi-final, but it appears that Karrer is being given more freedom than in the last match to push forward and act as a second striker. In the 28th minute, Karrer showed great skill in beating two defenders as he attacked along the by-line from the left. Yasser Al Mosailem in the Saudi goal needed to be alert to stop the ball on the near post. Meanwhile, the Iraqi defence has been up to everything the Saudis have tried, with Noor Sabri in their goal only being called into action to punch away a corner. A free kick taken by Nashat Akram on the left five minutes before half time was met by Younis Khalef whose header went well wide of the mark in the 41st minute, while the following attack saw Karrer’s shot going just wide. The first half of the game was dominated by the Iraq plays, but they go in all squareafter the last chance of the half falls to the Saudis, Yasser Al Qahtani runs past one defender, but Nashat Akram gets his foot in just in time, and the ball flies well over for a corner – which in turn is easily cleared.

The Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, (ask the taxi driver for Senayan, which was the official name when I first visited, eleven years ago) consists of two tiers curving all the way around, with a uniform height at all points, and a level roof almost uniform all around. There is a track all around, so all the seats are a good distance from the pitch. The upper tier overlaps the lower by about six rows, and with the roof being so high that a wind would blow rain onto many seats in any particular direction, these seats have the advantage in protection. The upper seats are also the cheaper ones here in Jakarta, and there was a problems when I was here before with items being thrown from the top rows down onto the VIPs seats below. The centre of the VIP enclosure now has its own roof, while the introduction of plastic seats in all parts have lowed the capacity to 88,000 for a stadium that once claimed a six figure capacity, and also claims that a 120,000 crowd for a game against Malaysia in 2004. During this competition, two of Indonesia’s matches have attracted over 80,000 spectators. The figure for the final is not even half that, but the lower tier, which makes up the greater part of the stadium is at least half full. Actual supporters from Saudi Arabia naturally outnumber those from Iraq, but there is also a considerable degree of local support, and their sympathies, in the main are with Iraq. Nice to see a good few orange shirts and even a banner for the local Persija club. The local supporters club, calling themselves “Jakmania” is a development since my last visit. Then the club played on a small stadium (called Persija or Menteng) in central Jakarta in front of small crowds, while another club – Pelita Jaya had the more spacious Lebak Bulus Stadium to the south of town. Since then, Persija have grown and taken over the larger stadium, and Jakmania has taken own a life of its own as a supporters club styled after the Italians. Look for their own web pages, www.Jakmania.org to get some idea.

The second half started as the first period finished, with the Iraqi attack in command, and looking for a route through the Saudi defence and an accurate finish to complete a move. On the hour mark, Noor Sabri is called into the game to make the first real save, diving to his left to push away a powerful shot from Tiaseer Al Jassam. Not to be outdone, Yasser Al Mosailem then has to make two saves in quick succession, firstly from Younis Khalef, attacking down the right, and then, as the ball is not cleared, from Nashat Akram coming in on the other side. In contrast, the corners that followed both moves came to nothing. Another terrific chance came from an Iraqi attack on the left, Hawar Taher initially air kicked the ball, and had to chase back and collect it, his cross was then met by Younis Khalef, but again it was wide of the target.

Having failed to do much with most of the corners, it is a corner that allows the deadlock to be broken, and it is broken in favour of Iraq. Hawar Taher takes the kick on the right hand side and delivers it deep. Younis Khalef comes in late to attack the ball, and for once finds the target. The score may have been increased four minutes later, Younis Khalef again gets free, and Yasser Al Mosailem dives at his feet. As the ball runs free, Mahdi Ajeel falls over the keeper’s outstretched arms. With the keeper clearly playing the ball, play goes on and the ball is cleared. Saudi Arabia, who had brought on Ahmed Al Mousa at half time, now bring on Abdoh Autef as their second substitute to try and change the game. Iraqs first change is with 9 minutes left on the clock, Ahmed Menajid Abbas replaces Karrer in the Iraqi attack, and this is followed by the Saudi’s final throw of the dice, bringing on Saad Al Harthi – a third attacked, and in place of a defender. Iraq’s second substitute is Ali Abbas, a change of defenders for the final few minutes in which Saudi Arabia have made clear their intention to attack. This meant Iraq had freedom on the counter attack, and they launched two attacks through Taher on the left. The first was crossed to Younis Khalef whose first touch was wayward, while the second Taher took the shot himself, but well away from the target. Ahmed Abid comes on as the last substitute leaving Iraq with just the job of running the clock down for three minutes of injury time. The cheer that greets Noor Sabri rising to pick out a simple cross shows how popular the result is – and despite a final piece of drama – Noor Sabri coming out of his goal, and missing for once – Maleks downward header bouncing over the post, the whistle blows and the cup heads for Iraq.

A deserved win, one feels. Iraq looked on top of the game from start to finish, and were rarely troubled by the Saudis. It means that Saudi Arabia, like Japan and Iran, are stalled on three wins in this tournament, while it goes to Iraq for the first time. It will be well received by the majority of people on all sides of Iraq’s divides. Lets hope this time, no one spoils the celebrations.

Final Preview: Low scoring match could favour Iraq.

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

I have read previews of tomorrows final of the Asian Cup, and they all appear to highlight the attackers on both side, seeing the match as a battle to see which pair of forwards does best.

Much that I would like the final to be an open attacking game, much more like the semi-final in which Saudi Arabia beat Japan, than the affair where Iraq went past South Korea on penalties. However, I am not convinced that will be the case. I see the final as contest between the free scoring Saudi attack and the miserly Iraqi defence.

The Saudis have scored 12 goals in their five goals so far – the only time I saw them was in their third group game. Playing in the outpost of Palembang, they only needed a point to be certain of qualifying. A drawn match might have let their Arab neighbours Bahrain through, at the expense of more favoured South Korea – but the Saudis were not going to settle for anything, instead turning on the power and leaving Bahrain reeling on the wrong end of four goals, and it could easily have been more. The Saudi defence have been quite frugal, but five goals have got past them, including two equalisers for Japan in the semi-finals.

By comparison, the Iraq team have scored only six goals. Half of these were against Australia in what must still remain as the result of the competition. Iraq have only conceded two – an early (and very questionable) penalty against Thailand in the opening game, and Mark Viduka’s equaliser early in the second half of the Australia match before the team were overpowered. In the final group game, when Iraq needed only a draw to go through, there were no goals. In the quarter-final, there was little hope for Vietnam after Iraq had gone ahead in just 86 seconds, and in the semi-final, there were no goals over 120 minutes.

Of course, one can easily point out the difficulties the Iraq team has to go through just to be here. I do not have to discuss the trouble in their home land – not surprisingly, this has left the Iraqi football league in a mess. The team have to play all their international matches away from home, as do Iraqi club teams playing in the Asian champions league. Most of the squad, however, play not for Iraqi football teams, but for those of neighbouring countries in West Asia, North Africa and even Cyprus. It is said that every member of the team has either a friend or family member killed in the current troubles, while goalkeeper Noor Sabri, whose penalty shoot out save made him the hero of the semi-final, recently had to contend with the death of his brother-in-law. While every victory has led to wild celebrations in their homeland, and this football team appears to be the only place where different factions combine for the good of Iraq, it does have its downside. There were reports of accidental deaths as people celebrate by shooting into the air, while the semi-final celebrations were soured by car bombings.

The team has had some success in the past, as many of the players have played in the age limited competitions of the 2004 Olympics, and the 2006 Asian games. In the Olympics, they surprised much of the world by reaching the semi-finals. In the Asian games, they went a little better, only losing to home team Qatar in the final. In competitions where the full team is sent out, though – the team has not been so successful. In the Gulf Cup in January, they failed in the group stage, although only because their goals scored and conceded was not as good as Bahrain’s record (four scored and conceded) when both finished with four points. Notably, the team that knocked them out was Saudi Arabia, with a 1-0 win, when a draw would have confirmed both teams qualifying for the semi-finals.

It is often difficult to compare Arab team names from one competition from the next. The organisers have a tendency to produce different transliterations of the names from Arabic to English on different occasions, added to which many players have a long series of names, of which a few are selected for each competition, so the same player occasional appears under a very different name, fooling the uninitiated like myself.

Still, I am certain that the Iraqi side that played in the Gulf Cup is by and large the same players that have come out to South East Asia. The main change is the appointment of Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian who has spent most of his coaching career in Arab countries. Vieira was assistant manager of the Moroccan team that reached the second round of the World Cup in Mexico. By contrast, I do not think many of the players that played for Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cup have been selected for this competition. The exceptions appear to be in forward players, Yasser Al Qahtani and Malek Masz both played. All the Saudi Arabian players ply their trade in their homeland, but their coach has said that several (including Yasser and Masz) could play in the European leagues, (he appeared to be hinting that this would help their game as well). If this was to happen, we would have a unique situation – foreigners travelling to join European leagues for football reasons, rather than monetary ones.

The Saudi coach is also a Brazilian – but with a somewhat different coaching career to his counterpart, except in one respect. He has only recently arrived as National Coach, after his predecessor was sacked for his comparable failures (only one point in last summer’s world cup finals, and defeat to the home nation and eventual champions, UAE, in the semi-final of January’s Gulf Cup). Helio dos Anjos is undertaking his first national posting, and his first outside Brazil. He has 30 different coaching positions listed during a 19 year career in Brazilian football, but few of the really big teams are on the list, and his major honours are a second division title, and ten state championships. Saudi managers do not tend to last long, and if dos Anjos does not deliver the goods tomorrow, then it may not be enough to stay in position.

While Iraq’s best performance in the Asian Cup is fourth place back in 1976, and they have lost in the quarter-finals in the last three tournaments, Saudi Arabia’s record is second to none. The arrived in the finals competition for the first time in 1984 – the last time it was in South East Asia (Singapore then), they beat China 2-0 in the finals that time, and South Korea on penalties four years later, played in Qatar. In the 1992 finals in Japan, Saudi Arabia reached the final, but lost 1-0 to the hosts. The 1996 finals were back in the Gulf, at UAE, and again Saudi played the hosts in the final – winning their third title, and again on penalties after a 0-0 draw, then in 2000, Japan beat them again 1-0. You can see how much the semi-final win this time can be seen as sweet revenge, as well as preventing the Japanese for winning three in a row.

With only one point in their group games in China, 2004 was the only time that Saudi Arabia have played in the finals, without reaching the actual final. As Japan won this one as well, it means that only Japan and Saudi Arabia have won in the last six tournaments. The Saudis have also now appeared in four successive World Cup final tournaments, but have not won a game in the last three. In 1994, they beat Morocco and Belgium, and took the lead against the Netherlands (losing 2-1), before going out to Sweden in the knock out stages.

So, there it is – a final with promise – but I suspect a low scoring affair. Saudi Arabia have to start as favourites, and they will be the winner if the goal tally is high. Iraq are more likely to win 1-0 or on penalties. (Note, I have been wrong on most things in this tournament).

One thing that should not be a factor in the final is the climate. Through the tournament, this has been used as an excuse, but appears to have been less of a factor than expected. While all the venues have been hot and humid; Hanoi has been hotter and more humid than the others. With Saudi Arabia having to travel to Hanoi from Jakarta (at least a four hour flight) and into a much humid atmosphere – while having a day less than their opponents between matches – I thought everything in the semi would be in Japan’s favour. (As I said, I have been wrong quite often)

I cannot comment here on the play-off, simply as it has been on TV as I have been typing (no goals yet). The AFC have decided that the winner of the play-off, together with both finalists will be exempt from qualifying for the next competition, (by contrast, holders Japan had to qualify for this one). I am not certain whether this is a great prize. It means the options for the teams is either playing only friendly games once the next World Cup qualifying period (and possibly finals) is completed, or playing meaningful, but probably relatively easy qualification games for the 2011 finals? Still, having seen the first half, even though it has been goal-less, I can be certain that both teams do want to win. Well, neither set of players can easily go home if they have not tried their best against the opposition.

Penalties again decisive – Iraq reach the final

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Neither side wanted to commit everything to the attack from the off. The South Koreans were more attack minded in the early stages, but managed only a couple of high crosses which were easily dealt with and a shot from distance that went well over. It appeared that Iraq’s main threat was coming from Taher on the left wing, but the first real chance, which did not occur until the 28th minute came from the right, with Karrar Jassim narrowly failing to connect with a cross.

The crowd appeared to be slightly less than the 8629 for the quarter final, with the South Koreans again having the majority. The locals have undoubtedly not shown up at all. A heavy rain storm in the hour before kick off left the pitch looking soft again, but despite continuous rain through the game, the only surface water is on the running track surrounding the pitch

With five minutes to go to half time, it is again the Iraqis who come close to a break through, Younis Khalef shooting just wide. The Koreans best chance of the half came from a free kick wide on the left, which Choi Sung Kuk tried to swing over, but Noor Sabri saved on the far post.

The Koreans come out for the second half looking as if they are anxious to force the issue early in the second half. This results in a string of attacks, but as in the previous game, this come to nothing so long as they insist on finishing with a high cross into the area. Iraq create nothing in the first fifteen minutes of the half, but then Karrar is knocked over by Korean substitute Kim Jung Woo, and the resultant free kick deflects in the direction of the Korean goal but too close to Lee Woon Jae to be a real danger. The play quickly switches to the other end, and the other keeper, Noor Sabri, has to be alert as for once we do not have a high ball easily picked up by the defence. Keeping the ball low, a very long free kick from Yeom Ki Hun also threatens the Iraqi goal. This time Noor Sabri can only parry, and Cho Jae Jin is dangerously close to picking it up. It seems that Korea have worked out where the danger may lie, and they even get headers onto two successive corners in the 67th minute. Chances are now being created at both ends, Mahdi Ajeel cuts in from the right wing in the 69th minute and shot narrowly wide, while Lee Chun Soo does the same with a snap overhead volley after being found on side in front of the defence. Still the game runs through to the end of normal time without a goal, despite a late free kick by Cho Jae Jin which cannons into the wall, Cho picked up the rebound, but his second shot was not good enough to beat Noor Sabri. In the 90 minutes, South Korea have made two changes, both in the midfield, while Iraq come off the field with the same 11 men that started the game

Extra time started in a similar fashion, with Noor Sabri having to be equal to a Korean shot, the first chance coming to Lee Chun Soo four minutes in. The best Iraqi chance of the period came two minutes before the break, Lee Woon Jae flapped at a high cross, leaving him helpless as a shot from close range by Taher hit the post, and then was almost deflected in by Korean defender Kim Jin Kyu. South Korea used the break to bring on Oh Jang Eun as their last substitute. Iraq waited three minutes into the final period to bring on their first, Ahmed Abbas replacing Karrar. A misplaced pass by Ahmed Abbas, robbed the Iraqis of a chance immediately after the change, while two minutes later, Lee Chun Soo took a free kick for Korea that flew narrowly over. Iraq seemed to dominate the last period, but failed to get enough players up to make a difference, Taher beat the Korean keeper from a narrow angle and watched his chance go just wide, but he had no support, so could not cross instead. Ahmed Abbas then again failed to justify his entrance, getting a header to a corner, but placing it directly at the Korean goalkeeper. In the final minute, a chance fell at the other end to Lee Dong Gook, who shot well over – this turned out to be the last opportunity, so penalties again were to settle the day

During the penalty shoot out, we heard a constant barrage of horns from Iraq supporters, while the Koreans chanted the names of the takers, or the keeper. The first six penalties were scored, although Haider Hussein’s only just squeezed under the Korean keepers body, then Yeom Ki Hun hit a soft one to Noor Sabri’s left, for a save, and Kim Jung Woo placed his against the post – giving Iraq a 4-3 win.

The game was at times enthralling and at times frustrating. Both sides have the ability, but neither could just apply the finishing touch required. I am never completely happy to see the game settled on penalties – it provides drama and may be great for the TV audience – but, and especially in cases like these two games at Bukit Jalil where there are no goals in 120 minutes, one feels that the teams have failed to do what they should have set out to do – that is score goals. Still, the celebrations at the end show that the winning side care little about this – only that they have reached the final

Koreans make Iran pay penalty for keeper switch

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

I thought the whole series of articles would feature a lot about stressful, awkward journeys, and encounters with needless levels of officialdom as I criss-cross the region entering and leaving different countries on an almost daily basis – but (so far, and touch wood), it just has not happened like that. Both Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok have built brand new airports since my last trip to the region, and the operation of these makes flying an easy, low stress operation. The queues are not too long, (although sometimes, being in a queue is an invite for people to stand in front of you – the famous South East Asia politeness does not always last in a queue), and the officialdom is efficient, rather than petty. There is a lot that European and particularly British operations could learn by studying the airports here.

The Bukit Jalil stadium, just south of Kuala Lumpur appears to be massive. With three tiers of seats all around the ground, except a small gap just behind the goals where the space is given to scoreboards, and only the top two tiers come to a sudden end. I am on the main side, in the lower section, and it feels that my position is low – it certainly is compared to upper tier positions I have had at the other grounds. Behind me are various broadcasters boxes (with a VIP section centre), but not a great deal of space for executive boxes – certainly not in comparison with modern grounds in Europe. To fit these in, the rake on the seats in the stand is less than it is behind the goal or opposite. I would therefore have thought the second tier provides the best views, but the bulk of the support is in the lower tier, and most of the seats in the sections immediately opposite me are filled. Above the stands is a roof made of the same canvas material as has proved popular with recent football stadiums in Germany, especially those built or improved prior to the World Cup. This type of lightweight material needs only a relatively small lattice of steel beams and cables to keep it in place and under tension. The reds of Korea outnumber the whites of Iran, but both teams have a more than reasonable amount of support.

The game started a fast pace, with both teams looking for an opening, and neither wishing to rely entirely on defensive postures. The Korean formation is slightly more cautious, as they have opted for 4-2-3-1 against their opponents in 3-5-2. Both teams are trying to build their moves quickly, the Iranians using more of the wing, and attempting to cross the ball early for their forwards to run onto. The Koreans trying a little bit more guile, with their players cutting in and trying to either beat their opponent or to be fouled in the attempt. It has been a very wet day, and the playing surface is wet and greasy and a little bit on the soft side, which means that the goalkeepers need to be wary of longer shots, but neither made a mistake in the first half. The best chance of the period came four minutes before the close, when more intricate passing fed the ball to Karimi inside the penalty box, but Lee Woon Jae in the Korean goal was quickly off his line to block the danger. A good shot by Mahdavika ended the half in which both sides have played some good football, but neither is yet showing a sign of being able to apply the killer touch.

The second half started a little slowly, as a there were a couple of injury breaks. Apart from a change in the Koreans main forward, it was the same story as the first half. Both sides eager to attack, but no clear sign as to where the killer touch is going to come from. The Koreans won a corner in the 60th minute with their most likely move so far. Mohamed Nosrati failed to deal with a cross from Lee Chun Soo, and the ball found its way to Yeom Ki Hun. The shot from 18 yards went through the crowd of players and forced a save from Hassan Rodbarian, the Iranian goalkeeper. While one felt that a dead ball situation may break the deadlock, both sides were being eager to avoid being drawn into a foul in a dangerous situation, and when a kick was awarded, such as for an unlucky handball by Javad Nekonam in the 64th minute, the resultant kick (in this case from Lee Chun Soo for Korea) was not accurate enough to trouble the goalkeeper. A few minutes later, a wide ball to Rasoul Khatibi found the striker in space, and for once onside. The Korean goalkeeper rashly ran all the way out to meet him, and he jumped over the challenge, some 30 yards out, but before he could turn goalwards, a tackle by Oh Beom Seok flattened him. The Korean was lucky to see only a yellow card, while the resultant free kick sailed wide of the far post. The Koreans have now started a tendency to follow a few good passes with a long ball or high cross – I cannot think why this should be in their mindset, as it is a singularly unproductive tactic, with the balls rarely in the right place, and the forward incapable of dealing with those that are.

There is a good deal of background noise, continual drumming and chanting from fans on either side. This then rises into a crescendo whenever a forward or winger makes a run through, only to quieten again at the inevitable misplaced pass, or blocked cross. The second half drew to its conclusion with Korea making some of their best play, but becoming more open to the break, with Iranian substitute Gholam Enayati just failing to reach a cross in the last minute. Both sides, though were sensing that extra time would almost be inevitable. A foul by Khatibi on Choi Sung Kuk gives Korea a last chance, but Sung Kuk’s free kick is high and easily defended.

The first period of extra time was similar to the first 90 minutes, although the Koreans were now seeing more of the ball, and keeping it in their opponents half for longer. Kang Min Soon even won a header in the box, from a corner delivered by Choi Sung Kuk, although the result was the ball flashing across the face of the goal before running off for a goal kick. Despite this, the best chance of the period was the last one and the only real one for Iran, when Karimi set up Nekanam and his shot went just wide, with the Korean keeper stranded.

Korea brought on their last subsitute, Kim Do Heon at the break in extra time, but this did not revitalise there play, and for the first time in the game we saw one of the sides dwelling on holding possession. It appeared that Korea were more comfortable with the idea of the game going to penalties. With enough men back to make sure Iran did not get a winner, penalties is what we ended up with. Iran accepted the fact in the last minute when they changed their goalkeeper before the shoot out

First blood in the shoot out went to Korea, when the Iranians second penalty by Mahdavikia was saved, but then the substitute keeper (Vahid Talebloo) got a leg to Kim Do Heon’s shot on the next penalty and it was level again. It was another outstrecthed leg that saved the fourth Iranian penalty, as Rasoil Khatibi failed to get the ball past Lee Woon Jae, and this was decisive, as Kim Jung Woo scored Korea’s fifth penalty to wrap up the match by 4-2.

It is curious that a game with so much running, passing and opportunity should end up with a scoreless 90 minutes. Partly this is due to strong defending, but it also came from an incapability to change tactics. Iran continued to push the same ball forward, no matter how often their forwards were offside. Korea continued to cross the ball high, no matter that only Iranian defenders were on the receiving end. South Korea stay in Kuala Lumpur to play Iraq in the semi-final.

Iraq in the comfort zone.

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

From Palembang, I had to get back to Bangkok, so it was more time on the road, (or more specifically, in the air). The low cost carrier, Air Asia provided service back to Kuala Lumpur 24 hours after their flight had arrived the previous day. This gave me time for a short walk in the morning, down to the centre of the town, and the bridge which defines this. Despite this not being a tourist town, I soon got several offers of trips along the river, which I had no choice but to decline, due to time constraints. Also, the cycle rickshaws which seem to provide tourist colour and annoyance in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and here just part of the local transport scene. I also declined their assistance, and returned to the hotel on a public bus. These are 8 seater minibuses, sometimes converted from a land rover, with three poorly upholstered benches as the seats. There is no appearance of a timetable, but the buses have to queue up in order at the departure point by the bridge. Each one has its route marked at the top of the windscreen, and all buses playing the same route are painted in the same colour. Once I had boarded, my bus almost became a taxi, as I had exclusive use. Although this means we did not stop to pick up other passengers, (which I would not have minded), the journey was slow, with a five minute halt for a chat when a friend of the driver pulled up alongside on a moped, and another stop when the driver got off to buy a (single) cigarette, from a roadside seller.

My return to KL was uneventful, and the next morning I was out early again to catch a Bangkok flight. The evening was spent checking on some watering holes. The first one of choice was a so-called English pub, the décor might be right, but the size was unrealistic, and even if the beer was brewed on the premises, the bitter provided from a fake hand pump was somewhat disappointing. The equivalent of a low quality keg bitter in England. The second stop was on Soi Cowboy; chosen because my friend Steve, despite his advantage in years on me; always seems a little coy in matters regarding the opposite sex. He was embarrassed and flustered when we were approached in a hotel bar in Abu Dhabi, and I though this would also provide some light relief. As it was, we were too early, and the girls were all watching a soap opera when we arrived. Only when their favourite programme had finished did some dancing start, and even then they decided to ignore us, rather than humiliate Steve. Our third stop was a German brewhouse, well away from the tourist traps and frequented mainly by locals. The place was so popular that we would have needed to queue for a seat inside, where there was live music. Instead we took seats outside, reasonably comfortable by mid evening, and sampled their very passable German style Dunkel and Wiezen beers, while eating Thai food.

Saturday morning was true tourist style. The sky train, Bangkok’s neat public transport system that runs above the roads on tall concrete supports took us to its riverside terminus, and the boat service took as up the Chao Praya. We the spent our time walking around the spectacular temples that lie next to the Grand Palace. I had started out in shorts, but at the Grand Palace, I had to don the loan long trousers that are provided to make sure that even tourists are respectable.

I arrived at the stadium in time to make use of the media centre facilities to watch the first quarter final over in Hanoi. For the match itself, it seemed straight forward, Japan claimed all the possession and the running, but lack the players to finish the moves off, with the exception of Takahara. Australia, under pressure most of the game, know how to mount a break and took the lead on 70 minutes – only to concede a goal to Takahara two minutes later. Inevitably, with Japan not able to convert pressure into a second goal, even through extra time, it went to penalties.

Harry Kewell had the first penalty saved for Australia and Lucas Neill missed the second – so although the next two were scored, when Takahara stepped up for Japan’s fourth, the game was theirs to take. Unfortunately, he blasted over, Australia did score their final penalty, but so did Japan to win the tie.

It was good to see from the TV, that the crowd for the Japan-Australia game was reasonably good – the risk for the latter parts of the tournament was always that there would be a lack of interest with the host teams no longer on show. The match in Bangkok also managed to pick up a reasonable crowd, although they could spread out very thinly in such a large ground. It appeared there were few locals here, and hardly any take up of the free admission for students. Instead, the majority of the crowd were Vietnamese.

The Iraqi support consisted of a small band, no more than about 200 people sitting just below me. They very soon had something to cheer about, as Nashat Ali took the first free kick of the game, just 86 seconds in, and Younes Khalef got the slighest of headers to deflect the ball past the goalkeeper. For the rest of the half, Iraq had the majority of possession, but they rarely looked like increasing the lead. A rare Vietnamese attack could have brought an equaliser just before the break, but Nguyen Vu Phong’s shot was blocked off the line

Both sides are playing a 4-4-2 formation for this game, but since the early goal, Iraq are playing well within themselves, keeping the tempo slow whenever they have the ball, and relying on their strength in defence to keep the lead. The Vietnamese fans like to create noise whenever their players have the ball, but this leaves long periods of time when nothing can be heard other than the noise of a couple of Iraqi drums. The Iraqi noise built up a little more in the 65th minute, when they Younes Khalef took a free kick from just outside the area. Lifting the ball over the wall, it was well outside the reach of the Vietnamese keeper as it doubled the lead.

It looks unlikely that Vietnam can come back from this new blow. Their choice of players is limited by the absence of Phan Van Tai Em from the squad. Amazingly, he had chosen this date to get married. While his coach appears very diplomatic in allowing him leave for the wedding, Phan has taken a lot of criticism for not showing faith in his teams (let alone his own) ability. But then one could same the same of the Vietnam Football Federation. The AFC’s officialdom went into shades of apoplexy over Manchester United’s proposal to bring their touring team to Malaysia, and play there two days after the semi-final. They cited contract between the AFC and the FA of Malaysia and said no other match could be played in the country until after the tournament was complete. Meanwhile the VFF have reconsidered their own league, and re-arranged the restart of the league season for exactly the same date as United were due to play in Malaysia. As yet, the AFC have not objected!

Curiously, a Thai player, Datsakorn Thonglao, who also plays in Vietnam (and was the most expensive transfer in the countries history when he arrived from Thai team BEC Tero Sasana) also chose to get married during the tournament, although at least he decided not to do so on a match day, and played for his country two days later.

With 13 minutes to go, Younes Khalef comes close to his hat-trick, heading narrowly over. What little left that the Vietnamese can offer is easily handled, and most of their play comes to nothing on the sidelines. The Iraq team, content most of the time to use up possession and time could possibly have won by more than the two goal margin, but will be more than happy with the scoreline that propels them to the quarter finals

Saudi Arabia turn on the Style

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

When I asked the hotel reception what there was to see in Palembang, the answer was that “this is not a town for tourists”. Fortunately, my time here is very limited – arriving on Air Asia’s flight one day, and leaving on the equivalent return flight 24 hours later. The hotel arranged a taxi to take me through the untidy but busy town centre, across the river and well out of town to the Jaka Baring Stadium. The stadium is a recent addition. It is a generally symmetrical affair with identical stands opposing each other, plus curves of concrete seats behind both goals. In a style familiar of the stadiums built in South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, the front of the stand has a large curved arch made up from a lattice of steelwork. This supports a steel roof that curves back behind the seats. It has a track, so the curves and stands are a long way from the pitch. Again, the crowd was not particularly large, and unlike the match in Vietnam, there is no great support for one team. Most locals have stayed home to watch Indonesia on television.

Saudi Arabia, who lead the group on four points, line up in 4-4-2 formation. Bahrain play 3-5-2 and start the evening on three points – the same as Indonesia in the other group game. The fact that Bahrain have beaten South Korea, but been beaten by Indonesia in group matches drastically effects the combinations should teams finish level on points – but every team except South Korea know that a win will see them through, while the Koreans know they must win, and then they have to hope our game in Palembang does not end in a draw.

The fear for those watching in Palembang (from a neutral point of view) is that South Korea take a conclusive lead early on, and knowing this, our teams settle for a limp draw, but the early play does not support any such assumption, as both teams are going for the win. Saudi Arabia break any deadlock in the 17th minute, when a smartly played dummy leaves Ahmed Al Mousa in space. He drags the ball around the goalkeeper and then avoids the defenders to score. There were more chances at both ends, but the best came in injury time, first Malek beat a defender on the halfway line and ran through unchallenged, but then ballooned the ball just over. The next attack saw Malek receive the ball in a wider position and beating the defence knocked in a good low cross which was met by Abdulrahman Al Qahtani to make the half time score 2-0.

Knowing that the Koreans are winning, and therefore they need just to get a draw to go through, Bahrain start the second half by taking the game to Saudi Arabia. This almost pays off eight minutes in, when Salman gets a shot in from a tight angle on the left, but Saudi goalkeeper Al Mosailem is just up to pushing the ball onto the post. This set the pattern, with Bahrain pushing to try and change the came but Saudi always dangerous on the break. They should have scored in the 64th minute, but substitute Abdoh Autef strayed marginally offside. Bahrain’s chances came to an end in the 67th minute, when Malek attacked on the left and crossed for Taiseer Al Jassam to power in the third Saudi goal. Although Bahrain continued to push at what was clearly a lost cause, this just left them more open to the dangerous Saudi attacks. In the 73 minute, a good piece of football moved the ball to Omar Al Ghamdi – on the touchline about 10 yards from goal on the right – he cut the ball back to give Taiseer an easy finish for his second goal.

In the final fifteen minutes, despite Bahrain continuing to play and open game, all the real chances fell to Saudi Arabia, and in particular to Taiseer, who had two clear chances to complete his hat-trick.

The first was lost when casual shooting allowed his shot to be blocked after good work down the left by Malek and Autef had given him the ball with space and no marker, the second in injury time, when he failed with a header on the rebound after the Bahrain keeper had saved from Saad Al Harthi.

So, the final result was 4-0 – easily enough to see Saudi Arabia return to Jakarta for a quarter final against whichever team finishes second in Group C. It appeared that Bahrain’s insistence on never giving up left the field open for Saudi to play flowing football with style.

South Korea won a nervous game in Jakarta, where we could see from the monitors that they were under pressure for most of the second half, but the hosts did not have the power in front of goal to break the deadlock. South Korea travel to Kuala Lumpur to play Group C winners in the next round.

Leaving Vietnam, Leaving Singapore, Leaving Malaysia (a day in the life..)

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

After the game in Ho Chi Minh City, the scenes of celebration in the city centre were something to be seen. I got a taxi back from the stadium quite a while after the game, but he could not get me through to crowds of mopeds, and I had no choice but to walk the last few hundred yards. As I made my way through the cheering fans, I met one of the UAE press delegation who was being treated as if he was the hero that had single handily won a game for Vietnam. However, it should be said that few cities in Asia deserve the title, “the city that never sleeps”, and those in Vietnam are certainly listed as “the city that gets to bed early” – so I can report it was all quiet by around midnight. Still, a late night out for most locals.

It is not a groundhopper’s tale if it does not involve dashing long distances in order to see seemingly insignificant matches. A day without any game in the Asian Cup should allow me to make the considerable distance between Vietnam and Indonesia with ease, but I have to make things more difficult. My flight out of Ho Chi Minh City takes me to Singapore, while I have to catch a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Palembang, on the Indonesian isle of Sumatra. The gap between the two is easily traversed by bus, train or plane – and it was quite plausible to arrive in KL mid evening and spend the night there.

But Singapore is another country, not one of the hosts of the Asian Cup, and a failure in the qualification process. As a result, the S-League is playing on through the period of the tournament, and gives a chance for a few extra matches. The match is at Yishun, a typical ground for the S-League consisting of a running track with a slight banking to the surrounds. On one side are a few rows of seats, (and also behind both ends), while the opposite side has a large stand, two thirds given over to concrete seats, the central section with proper plastic seats. The crowd is sparse – just a few hundred, although I can guarantee it will officially be put somewhat higher. Generally there is no sign of affiliation for either team from the crowd, but there is a small group of supporters chanting and banging a drum in support of the visitors, Tampines Rovers. The home side, by contrast has a just a single drummer. But then Tampines Rovers are one of the better sides, and currently top of the league. The home side, by contrast are bottom and lack the obvious basis of support. This is because they are Korean Super Reds, one of the oddities of the Singaporean League, a ‘foreign’ team. There are three teams of this type in the league at the moment, the other two Lioaning and Abirex Niigata have parent teams in China and Japan respectively. Korean Super Reds are on their own in that they have no team in their home country to affiliate to, but are here on their own. This is not new – the league has had two other foreign teams in the past Sinchi (for Singaporean Chinese) and Sporting Afrique. Sinchi was a mix of mainland and local Chinese and lasted for several years without any success. The African team survived for only a season before the league decided to give them the push. They selected their players from a number of African countries.

The Super Reds team are all from Korea, and are basically a very young side. The captain, Nam Woung Hi is 31 years old, and took up a holding role behind the back four. The rest of the players, with two exceptions were under 23 years of age. Clearly the hope for the players is that this experience will see them in good stead, and they will join clubs in their homeland later. For the league, the hope was to mobilise support from the local Korean community, but there is little sign that this has been achieved.

As for the match, the first half was a non-event. Despite the disparity of league positions, there was little to choose between the teams, and when either came even close to a shooting position, it seemed there was a desire to boot the ball high and wide. Tampines started the second half with two substitutions and a renewed impetus, but as they continued to miss the target, this soon run out, allowing Korean Super Reds a chance, if only they could find the target. It was not until 82 minutes that the deadlock was broken, when Tampines’ Brazilian striker Peres de Oliveira found space, and although his shot came off the post, Singaporean national striker Noh Alam Shah was on hand for the rebound. KSR pushed forward, Nam Woung Hi moving to a more advanced position. This could have had consequences, as two crosses should have produced a second goal for Tampines, but then paid off in the 89th minute when a rash tackle gave away a penalty. Jeon Hyojoon’s penalty came off the post, and the ball was half cleared to the right wing. From there it was crossed back for Jeon Hyojoon to level the scores with a header. Three minutes of added time did not add to the scores, so Korean Super Reds picked up just their fifth point in 16 games.

After the game, there was hardly a stop in the travelling. The local metro takes me towards town, and a short walk to a bus departure point. After a short wait, I am on the midnight bus to Kuala Lumpur. After a short stop at customs about 40 minutes later, the driver carried on up the motorways, reaching the Malay capital before 6 am. I manage to sleep on the bus, except for a few times when my friend Steve, who had met me at Singapore Airport before the game, nudges me because my snoring is keeping him awake. Steve has not got the required visa for my next game, so he is going to go to one of the Group C games in KL. We get a taxi to where he is going to stay, it is 6.30 in the morning, but the night porter says Steve cannot check in until 8. By 8 O’clock, I have taken the monorail from the hotel to the Sentral (Malay spelling) Station, and am on a bus to the airport. With about a 20 minute delay, it is just a fraction less than 24 hours since I have left Vietnam, when I leave Malaysia bound for Palembang in Indonesia.

Vietnam lose 4-1; the Celebrations will go on late tonight!

Monday, July 16th, 2007

After the heat and humidity of Hanoi, it is a relief to come down to Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly known as Saigon), where is may still be hot and humid, it is somewhat more comfortable to walk outside than in the capital. The city itself is a curious mixture, the centre pieces being curiously French architecture left over from colonial times – a red brick cathedral, the spacious post office and a very opulent opera house. If one move to the Chinese part of the city, then there are some magnificently decorated temples. Between the two, the typical tall narrow buildings of the locals, painted in their contrasting colours, some welcome green spaces, and everywhere the hooting of motor scooters flitting around the city

As Qatar have two points, while Japan and Vietnam, playing each other in Hanoi have four, they have choosen an attacking line up, starting in 4-3-3. The United Arab Emirates know they go home after this game, and have dropped all but three from the starting line up of the last game. The match is being played at the stadium known as Quan Khu 7, and translated into English as the Army Stadium. Like the others so far visited, it has an athletics track. Outside this are rows of brightly coloured concrete seats – about ten rows behind the goals, rising at least another four rows along the side. A modern stand sits along one side and provides the only protection from the elements. Most of the sparse crowd are either in this stand or in the first block beyond. Almost to a man, they are supporting the United Arab Emirates – after all, if Qatar do not win this match, then Vietnam (and for that matter Japan) will qualify regardless of the score in the other game. Every time the UAE got the ball, it was applauded, but this was nothing to the crescendo that greeted the news that Vietnam were ahead in their match, rising in intensity as more people confirmed the news. No more than a whimper signalled the Japanese equaliser four minutes later.

The balance of the early play was just in Qatar, but were having little joy in front of the goal, and the UAE started to create a few more chances and get the local crowd excited, (the news that Vietnam were now losing having quietened them a bit), but five minutes from half time, it all went wrong as Quintana was fouled just inside the box. The referee tried to be helpful, ruling the first score from the resulting penalty as illegal (assumedly for an infringement), but Quintana is not an easily rattled played, and put his second attempt into the roof of the net. Two minutes later, the UAE goalkeeper somehow contrived to mess up a clearance and get caught in a tangle of feet with a Qatar player. The referee decided to give an indirect free kick inches inside the box. Quintana’s powerful shot was blocked by the wall this time, while Yahya headed the resultant corner just wide. At half time, Qatar lead 1-0, and with Japan also ahead, it is not looking good for Vietnam.

The second half was very much in the same vein as the first, Qatar having the play but not looking that likely to get a second goal, while Vietnamese hopes took another knock thanks to Shunsuke Nakamura adding Japan’s third goal. Ten minutes there was a chance for UAE when Jumaa crossed for Nawaf Mubarak, but the number nine was a foot away from making contact., and then on 58 minutes another cross from the right, this time from Ahmed Mohamed AL Mahri was met by the head of Saeed Alkas and this time UAE were level. The crowd exploded back into life, and there were regular chants of U-A-E, but the team did not respond in kind, as it was Qatar that were woken up by the goal. Meanwhile, Japan’s position in the ascendancy in Hanoi was being confirmed, as the raised the score to 4-1

It took until 68 minutes into the game before the first substitution, Qatar bringing on Magid Hassan as an alternative attacked to Ali Yahya, but keeping the same 4-3-3 formation. A defensive change followed, Mesaad Al Hammad coming on for Mustafa Abdulla, but again without a change in the formation. The Qatar play was try to and move the ball quickly, using mainly the inside left channel, and then trying to get the ball to Quintana. UAE’s tactics were to try and block the ball before it reached the Uruguayan and then boot it upfield as quick as possible. With fourteen minutes to play, UAE made their first change – taking off the goalscorer Alkas and bringing on Faisal Khalil, another striker. Qatar’s final change, bringing on Adel Mohamed for Wesam meant an extra forward and a final 12 minutes of bombarding the goal in 4-2-4 formation. UAE then brought on Mohamed Al Shehhi for Nawaf Mubarek, still keeping their shape. Qatar continued to press, but the UAE were making a good effort in keeping the ball from Quintana. This was an effective tactic, for despite giving putting Magid in with a clear chance on 84 minutes, the forward missed the target. As soon as a white shirted player received the ball, the ground would scream their delight, especially if the player could run with the ball and maybe draw a foul. For once time wasted by an injury was cheered not jeered. The 90 minutes were passed with 18 being treated, it took more than another minute to bring on 20 as the final sub. Qatar pushed down one wing and then the other, but UAE defenders were blocking every cross, while the runs of 13 brought the fouls, and brought the crowd to their feet. Four minutes over – Mater takes a very long run and powers a low shot through the wall. Qatar goalkeeper Saqr saves, but the ball bounces up. Faisil Khalil is first on hand, and heads into the empty net. The game ends seconds later with Vietnam, beaten 4-1 in Hanoi reaching the quarter finals.

Outside the gates to the stadium, the crowd spent a long time chanting for their own team and for UAE. Bruno Metsu gave just the briefest of press conferences (it mattered little, you could hardly hear what was said) before boarding the bus amid his cheering support. Metsu will not be such a hero when he returns to the Emirates as he now is in Vietnam. Perhaps he should head east for his next job. I feel Qatar failed because they are too reliant on a single player, and the other forwards do not feel up to the purpose of taking on the responsibility

The Old Order is not yet Dead

Monday, July 16th, 2007

It may be dangerous to publish a page including predictions less than half an hour before the game kicks off, but here’s to living dangerously

When the qualification draw for the Asian Cup was released. I wrote down a list of the twelve teams I expected to qualify. I cannot remember now whether or not I got all 12 correct, but I do know that I got at least 11. Indeed, there were only two questions in my mind when making my list – would Bahrain or Kuwait join Australia from Group D, and whether it would be Jordan or Oman to qualify in Group C?

Both Jordan and Kuwait played in the last finals in China. The only other team in the 16 for the 2004 tournament, not to also play in 2007 was Turkmenistan – who did not even enter the qualification stage. The three new teams in contention are two of the hosts, Vietnam and Malaysia, plus new boys Australia. In the same way, China 2004 was the first time 16 teams played in the finals, and 11 of the 12 teams from the tournament played in Lebanon four years earlier were back. Only Lebanon themselves missed out.

This is the way of Asian football, and has been for all the time I have been following sport in the region. There is an established order in the game and this is neither easily upset or changed. It is not the way of all the world. In Africa, home advantage is a far more significant factor, while in Europe, it is not unknown for a team to be built up and spend a few years in the limelight, and then to fade back towards insignificance.

So we entered the tournament with certain expectations. In many minds, the four group winners were known in advance, and would all move on to the semi-finals. These four teams were Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea. The second places were never supposed to be so clear, with the other two teams in the group, (with the exception of the hosts) in each group expected to fight a close contest. For the hosts, the question was whether any of them at all, even with the addition of home advantage could even challenge for qualification.

The first two rounds of matches show a marked difference to expectations. In particular there were much stronger performances from the home sides than anyone could have expected (except Malaysia – more of them later). In addition to this, we have seen two of the ‘big four’ failing to do the business. Although still in competition, both these teams are at seriously at risk of not reaching the knock out stages.

In group A, Thailand set the standard in the opening game, when they picked up a 1-1 draw with Iraq. The following day, Oman came within a minute of defeating Australia. The second round really opened up the competition though, as both Thailand and Iraq won their matches. The Thais beating Oman, while Iraq surprised Australia by demonstrating the commitment needing to succeed at this level. After only one week, Graham Arnold’s whinging excuses as to why Australia’s failures are the vault of everyone but himself are already becoming legendary in these parts.

But it is not all over, Thailand and Iraq have four points, Oman and Australia only one, but this could all change in the final round. If two teams should end up level on points, then the spoils go to the team with the best head to head record. This means that if only one of Australia and Oman win their last game, they will draw level with their opponents on points, and the win they have just achieved will give them the better head to head result. But if both Oman and Australia are to win in the games ahead, then all four teams in the group end on four points. In this case, it is the overall group goal difference that counts, meaning that a three goal win is required to ensure qualification.

In Group B, Vietnam started by trumping the achievements of their great rivals, by winning their first game against UAE. Japan were slow starters being held by Qatar, but then came good in beating the UAE team 3-1. While the strengths of the Japanese were clear in this game, so were their weaknesses, and they lost their way when a bigger margin should have been possible. While the UAE have now been knocked out, Qatar scored a second draw in the match against Vietnam – forcing the issue in the second half when the home side could not raise the game, even with 40,000 home supporters behind them.

So with Vietnam and Japan level on four points, and each having won a game by a two goal margins, they are strongly placed to qualify as they play each other. But this leaves Qatar in an interesting position in the other game – if they can beat the UAE by three goals, then they know they will overtake at least one of the teams from the other group. Indeed if either Japan or Vietnam win, then any win puts Qatar through – but should Qatar fail, then the other result becomes unimportant as both teams are already qualified.

While the host sides have exceeded expectation in Groups A and B – in group C they have made up for this. Malaysia being outmanoeuvred and overpowered in both their opening games. Both China and Uzbekistan knocking five goals past them. The Iranians beat Uzbekistan in their first game, and then recovered strongly from 2-0 down to take a point off China and leave the Chinese holding on for this at the end. A single point will confirm Iranian qualification, and it almost inconceivable they will not go beyond that. China hold the upper hand in the other game, the point gained against Iran means they only need a draw to go through – but Uzbekistan have in Shatskikh a player with the potential to be tournaments top scorer, and if on form, he can take his team a long way.

The Indonesians also opened their campaign with a further success for the hosts, defeating Bahrain, while South Korea drew 1-1 with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia have since built up the strength and reputation by outlasting their hosts in the second game and rising to four points, but South Korea did not carry on in the same vein. They enjoyed a great deal of possession against Bahrain, but time and time again they failed to turn this into goals, finally losing out when Bahrain scored. So both Bahrain and Indonesia have three points going into the last game, Saudi Arabia are ahead with four, while South Korea are hanging in with just the one.

This leaves the group in a most complex state, except for Saudi Arabia – they know that they pick up at least a draw against Bahrain, they must go through to the quarter-finals, and a victory must leave them top of the pile. Both Bahrain and Indonesia also know that winning their last game is enough to push them into the next round – they also both know that a draw may well be enough. For Bahrain, a fourth point would be enough if South Korea were to win their last game, for Indonesia it is enough if Bahrain do not win. South Korea need to win their last game, and then hope the other result is to their liking. South Korea’s hopes depend on Saudi Arabia also winning their game.