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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.