Archive for the ‘Asia 11’ Category

Qatar: Ticketing Controversy overshadows the Final

Friday, February 4th, 2011

As the 2011 Asian Cup draws to its conclusion, I wonder what we have learnt from it, how this will affect the future of Asian Football, and also what this may mean for the World Cup when it comes to this tiny Emirate, the smallest country to stage the tournament.

But first, the quarter finals. In my last blog on the subject, I felt I could not see beyond group winners Japan and Uzbekistan winning the first pair, whereas the second set of matches would be much closer. In this I was correct, although none of the quartet provided a team with an easy route through.

The first match saw almost 20,000 at Al Gharafa as the hosts Qatar met Group B winners Japan. For Qatar, it would be their foreign born stars that held the key, and Sorria, born in Uruguay gave them an early lead, from an apparently offside position.

Shinji Kagawa restored parity soon afterwards, getting his head to a loose ball after Shinji Okazaki had tried to lob the home keeper.

With 27 minutes to play, Japan’s Moshida picked up his second yellow card, and from the resultant free kick, Fabio Cesar was to bundle Qatar back into the lead.

Japan would not take this lying down, and Kagawa again was on hand to level the scores, and then to claim the assist as Inaho scored the winner in the final minute.

An Earlier stop at AL Gharafa

At Khalifa, Uzbekistan reward for winning the group was a match against Jordan. Scoreless at the break, the Uzbeks then took a two goal lead within five minutes of the restart – both scored by Ulugbek Bakayev. Ten minutes later Bashir Bani Yaseen pulled one back for Jordan, but this was not to be enough and Uzbekistan went through.

Friday is a non working day in Qatar, so crowds were down again for the Saturday games. Only 7000 for South Korea and Iran, an intriguing contest between two teams meeting at this stage for the fifth successive time. It was unlikely there would be much between the teams and so it proved, with the only goal scored by Korean substitute Bit Garam Yoon midway through extra time.

A slightly larger crowd was at Al Sadd to see the Australians take on holder Iraq, and they had to wait even longer for a goal, the only one coming two minutes from the end of extra time, with Harry Kewell heading in a cross from Matt McKay.

And so on to the salient questions. Can Qatar hold a World Cup, and what will it be like for players and spectators? We can leave out the question of whether the cup should have been awarded here, as that is now in the past, and cannot be changed. I have no doubt that some journalists are still looking for the answers to why the Cup will be in Qatar.

Qatar can build things, so I feel safe in saying the stadiums will be built, and they will be of sufficient standard and numbers for the World Cup. More hotels and apartment buildings will be built, and there will be accommodation for those who can afford to stay. The infrastructure will improve. By 2022 there will be more roads, (but just as many traffic jams), and hopefully a rail and metro system as well.

Mall Life 1– inside the City Centre Mall

Everything will look good from a distance, but it may not stand too close scrutiny. On our trip we found much unfinished paving, even around finished projects, while more of the paving of the famous Corniche is broken than unbroken. In may other places we found that projects while ostensibly complete, had little faults that needed attention. Our hotel was a case in point. Failures of management and supervision – the inability to fix a leak, or provide the correct number of fresh towels, despite reminders gave us a poor impression of what was otherwise a good hotel.

The problem is in the way Qatari society is structured. The locals, on the whole are the owners of everything, and have great riches thanks to the oil boom. The work is done by the expatriate guest workers. The workers therefore are only there for the money, they put up with poor living and working conditions so long as they can make more money than at in their homeland, and send a surplus back to their families.

Naturally, there are some foreign workers coming into more senior positions, in management and engineering – but all the expats know their livelihood depends on not offending the bosses. This means there are very few people around that will say to the Qataris things like “This is not working” or “This is not the correct design”. Quite likely those that try to do this, soon find themselves looking for new employment.

The result is, at one end of the scale annoying faults in the hotel, but at the other end a piece of jagged metal sticking out of the ground, along an unfinished and unlit pathway between the road and Al Rayyan stadium, meaning one of our party suffered a painful gash on his leg, which needed medical attention.

For most of those that visit Qatar, the prospect is to spend time in comfortable, but expensive hotels. There is no sign of cheap options being made available, and if the tournament is held in the summer (as planned), then camping would not be an option. In January or February, it is a different matter.

Qatar is not cut off from the World, and is quite used to seeing foreigners walking down the street. They expect some respect to their customs, which generally means modest dress when one wanders around the city. Neither short skirts nor shorts are common. The exception seems to be the Corniche, where it seems quite acceptable for joggers and others taking their morning exercise to show some leg.

At the moment, alcohol sales are limited to a few bars in a few of the bigger hotels. One needs to show ID to get in, and there is a big disincentive for those thinking of getting drunk. The cheaper beers are around £6/pint. The good stuff costs more. I am sure that by 2022, there will have been some thought given to allowing the visiting football fans to get their drinks. I am sure prices will stay high, but there will be more availability.

Mall Life2 – Painted Ceilings

The real problem for football fans visiting Qatar during 2022 will be what to do when not watching football. At recent World Cups, just to see three group matches involves a serious amount of travelling and changing hotels. There has been a varied amount of sightseeing available around the country, and then the fans meet up socially, (and tend to drink a little).

In Qatar, it will be possible to pick a single base within Doha, and get to all the games without ever changing hotels. One can wander around the Corniche, Souq and a couple of museums in Doha, and spend a day or two on a desert safari. After that, there is nothing except the social and alcoholic options, and the football.

With two matches every day in the Asia Cup, the committed groundhopper keeps busy by seeing games every day. Even with this hectic schedule, we still had time to see most of the sights. At the World Cups in Germany and South Korea, I was more than happy to see matches such as Sweden v Trinidad & Tobago and Poland v USA – but the average football fan has little interest in these games. Even if tickets are much cheaper than recent world cups, fans will not be interested in many games beyond his own national team.

It is a football stadium! (Al-Sadd)

Even though Qatar is a peninsular with a long coastline, it is very short on beach resorts. The option of sitting around the pool with a cocktail and not leaving the hotel grounds for days at a time is hardly an option here. Even in the best run tournaments, there is always the risk that groups of fans can decide to make their own “entertainment”, and that this involves confrontation.

Enough of that for now, as the semi-finals have come and gone, and must be worth a mention, South Korea against Japan was the match I would have most liked to see, possibly as a final. The locals did not agree with me, and only 16,171 made their way to the Al Gharafa stadium for the first semi. It was a match requiring a stern referee, who knew what was and was not a penalty. It got Saudi Arabian Khalil Al Ghamdi. I do not know how good he is, as his only earlier game was the innocuous contest between South Korea and India, which I had not seen. He is experienced, having been at the last World Cup (nine yellow cards and one red in the Switzerland v Chile game). What I can say is that his penalty decisions this time were bitterly disputed.

The first was for South Korea, and involved Park Ji Sung being barged off the ball. The penalty given was hotly disputed, but this did not bother Ki Sung Yoo, who slotted the ball away. Ki then courted controversy by running towards the nearest camera and making “monkey gestures”, pulling and scratching his face. These are considered inflammatory to the Japanese, and the Celtic midfielder admitted reacting to a Japanese military flag held aloft in the stadium, but later suggested that his gesture was a reply to taunts from St Johnstone fans while he was playing for Celtic.

A lone spectator watches a game on a big screen, just outside the Khalifa Stadium. He cannot get closer as the car park between him and the screen is a “family area” with more guards outside, than people inside. The only other screen was in the Fun Zone, (which one has to pay to enter, and again has more guards than guests) – and this was positioned badly in the glare of the afternoon sun

South Korea soon had an appeal for a second penalty, again for a foul on Park Ji Sung, brushed aside before Japan levelled the scores through Ryoichi Maeda, slotting away a pass from Nagatomo. The second half was quieter in nature and led preceded the storm that was extra time. Hwang Jae-Song blocked Shinji Okazaki, making contact just outside the box, but the Japanese midfielder managed to fall the other side of the line, and another penalty was awarded.

Keisuke Honda’s kick was poor and game off the feet of Jung Sung-Ryong, but the fastest to react was Hajime Hosogai, who gave Japan the lead. This was held until the very end of extra time, when Hwang Jae-Song redeemed himself for the foul by thrashing home the loose ball after a goalmouth scramble.

The shootout was a victory for Japan’s Eiji Kawashima, who saved two Korean shots. Honda, despite having failed with his penalty during the game, made good with the first shot for Japan, then Koo Ja Cheol had his attempt saved. Okazaki made it 2-0, and a further save was made from Lee Yong-Rae’s shot. South Korea may have had some hope when Nagatoma failed to convert his penalty, but this was short lived as Hong Jeong-Ho missed the target. Yusuyuki Konno, who had conceded the foul for South Korea’s opening goal, was Japan’s fourth penalty taker, and gave them an unassailable 3-0 lead.

The Aspire Zone – on the left are two indoor arenas, one containing a swimming pool. The arches are the Khalifa stadium, while the big tower, known as the “Torch” contains restaurants and conference rooms

This was followed by Uzbekistan against Australia, (no time to get between games, but just enough for an advertising break if viewed on TV), played in front of a half full Khalifa stadium (given as 24,826). The Uzbeks were short of two key players – influential forward Aleksandr Geynrikh, and goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov. Both had been substituted during their quarter final. Ulugbek Bakayev, who had not played in the group games, but then partnered Geynrikh in the quarter final, (scoring both goals), started up front with Maksim Shatskikh. Shatskikh had himself missed out on the quarter finals. Temur Juraev, who came on for Nesterov in the quarter final continued between the sticks. It is fair to say that the Australians had been fortunate on the injury front, and fielded their strongest XI.

The Uzbek defence was soon found wanting, as Harry Kewell, attacking down the left put Australia into the lead after just five minutes. Ognenovski added a second before the break, and then the floodgates burst, as Bakayev received a second yellow card, and Australia added four more goals in the final 25 minutes.

From the Corniche, the new towers compete for attention

The official crowd given for the final was around 37,000 – indeed exactly one more person was recorded at this match than for the opener at the same stadium. The veracity of the figures are somewhat in doubt, despite the use of computerised turnstiles, which should accurately record the numbers in the stadium.

Throughout the tournament, the ticketing and attendances have been questioned. Some of the crowds given have been very small, but eye-witnesses have suggested the numbers in the stadium are even smaller. For the first two India games at Al-Sadd, people looking for tickets were turned away, but official figures show 25% (around 3000) seats empty. Once inside the stadiums, confusing reigns, as the stewarding is not sufficient to send individuals to the correct seats. Many were told to “sit anywhere”, and hence ended up taking seats in a higher pricing category than they had paid for. Later arrivals, having paid for these seats would have no assistance in moving people from their allocated seats, or finding suitable alternatives.

Meanwhile, there was criticism of the low numbers in attendance. The actual crowd figures were very variable, but a few matches had astonishing low crowds. Some of this is due to the compact nature of the tournament, meaning locals would pick and choose which matches to go to. The matches involving Qatar, and those involving countries with large numbers of expats (notably India and Syria) all got good crowds.

Restaurants in the Souq. In many places, a local cannot order a meal in his own language, as many waiters do not speak Arabic

Although Football is the number one spectator sport in Qatar and the country has a professional league – it does not publish its attendance figures.

Anyway, for the final, it appears the authorities were nervous of the idea of empty stands being shown on worldwide TV for this showpiece event. They will have known the numbers of advance ticket sales, but either this was insufficient, or they felt many would fail to turn up, with the match on television, and Qatar already eliminated.

SO in the hours before kick-off, a large number of people were admitted into the stadium without tickets. Some reports suggest students were encouraged to take up the opportunity.

The stadium is next to the country’s most popular shopping mall, and on a Saturday evening, this means heaving. With this and a big match in proximity, parking is at a premium, and the area’s road system soon gets clogged with traffic. Most locals should know that this is a problem, and plan accordingly.

And then, the Emir arrives. As always the ruler of the country arrives under strict security, and not long before the event starts. All the other gates to the stadium are closed during this time. Reports say that the gates did not open again, even though many ticket holders were left outside.

After initially denying that anything untoward had happened, the organisers first admitted 700 ticket holders had been denied entry, and now accept the numbers are somewhat greater – possibly around 3000. Ticket holders can now get a refund of their admission price, (but not of course, any other expenses incurred).

For the final, Japan were without the injured Shinji Kagawa, whose foot injury will mean missing most or all of the rest of Borussia Dortmund’s season. Australia had the best of the game, and the man of the match was given as Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. For Australia, Matt McKay had another good game (which must push him onto European club radar). McKay is one of the few “Socceroos” to have spent his career with Australian teams, except for short loan periods in Korea and China.

Only later in the second half did Japan really get into the game, with Shinji Okazaki coming close. Okazaki has been one of the (relatively few) discoveries of the tournament, and has since moved to Stuttgart. The match by a single goal in the second period of extra time, Nagatomo found space on the left flank and crossed to substitute Tadanari Lee, who hit a first time volley which flew into the net.

Although those on the pitch were probably enough, the evening was finished with more fireworks off the pitch (and some complaining they were kept in the stadium against their will).

The Short and Busy Roads!

Friday, January 21st, 2011

With my week in Qatar coming to an end, first priority is to negotiate an exit from the hotel. It’s going to be an evening flight, and I do not want to leave the room too early. The hotel is quite good, but there have been some niggling problems throughout the stay, and comments and complaints have had a partial effect. For example, we need to ask for towels, water and coffee on several occasions, including sometimes when housekeeping come to our room just to deliver these items. There is also an annoying leak in the bathroom, meaning the floor is often wet.

I take the list downstairs and demand to see the manager. He is, of course very apologetic. I then mention the fact that our flight is not until after 11 that evening. He does a calculation, and decides we need to leave the hotel at 8.30 to catch it. Without further prompting, we have a very late check out, and a free limousine to get us there.

To some extent, the problems in the hotel mirror those of the country, or at least city as a whole. It is a pleasant place, and the overall design is interesting – but wherever you go, you see little things that have not been done right, and which in general are not about to be fixed. Even the Corniche, the highlight of the city suffers from uneven and cracked paving. Certainly the original plan was fine, but as always seems to be the case in Asia, (except Japan and Singapore), what looks to be fantastic from a distance does not stand for close-up scrutiny. There are always little cracks in the edifice. Asia just does not meet together at the joins, and Qatar is a clear example of this. Walking around the new city, one can be surprised at how many pathways just fade out for a period as the paving has not been done, or if a building is higher than the surrounding road, the impossible humps in the paving around it. It can be difficult for the able bodied to walk these, impossible for those pushing a pram, or in a wheelchair.

Incidentally, while we saw many prams, especially around malls and parks, I cannot remember seeing a wheelchair or a clearly disabled person on the trip. Where does a country like Qatar put their disabled people?

Falcon, India, c 1640

One point in the city that is well worth a visit is the museum of Islamic Art. This is a large modern building, rather angular that juts out into the sea from the Corniche, jus past a Dhow harbour. Admission is free, except for a special exhibition gallery which I skipped. Although the title is Islamic Art, the exhibits were not religious in nature, but examples of art created in Islamic societies. Paintings are not to the fore, with the best exhibits (to my eye) being either ornamental or practical. It was also very notable that while there were items from across the Islamic World, few, if any of the items were actually from Qatar, or anywhere in the Arabian peninsular.

“Lion” Incense burner, Iran, 12th century

My final game is the Group C match between Australia and South Korea. It is my third visit to the Al Gharafa. Both teams have won their first game, and Australia are unchanged. Korea bring in Hwang Jae Won as centre half in place of the suspended Kwak Tae Hwi.

An entertaining start saw chances at both ends, with Harry Kewell missing a chance for Australia. South Korea had by far the more numerous and noisier support, and began to take control, this was demonstrated on 23 minutes when Jo Dong Won received a through ball in the area, and held it up for the incoming Koo Cha Cheol to open the scoring. This is Koo’s third goal after his brace in the opening game.

Australia were not without opportunity, and Harry Kewell was looking their most likely, receiving a lay-off from a 31st minute free kick, he just shot over from more than 25 yards, and he also shot just wide on 38 – but in between these, South Korea had created several promising openings with Park Ji Sung in particular looking dangerous. In particular, he combines well with the winger Lee Chung Yong. Australia appeared to have a golden chance when the ball ran through to Cahill in space, but Cha Du Ru reacted quickly to knock the ball off his toes and concede the corner.

The “Fearsome Foursome”, Spanner, DJ, Eddie and Peter relaxing on the Corniche

After a shaky start to the second half, Australia clearly started to get back into the game and were rewarded on 62 minutes when Jedinak headed in an equaliser. He received the ball from a short cross by Lucas Neill after Cahill had headed on a corner, but Korean goalkeeper Jung Sungryong will be disappointed not to have dealt with it better. South Korea almost got the best possible response within a minute with Jo Dong Won shooting just wide after good work by Park Ji Sung. Then Cahill was ruled offside when clear, but anyway Jung did well this time to stop the shot.

South Korea made a double substitution with 20 minutes to play, changing both of their strikers – with both sides having won their opening games, a draw might suit both, but there is no sign as yet of either team going for this. Schwarzer needed to be aware in cutting out a cross from Lee Young Pyo. As the game neared its end, we thought the team’s might settle for a draw, which after all would not be bad for either, but an 86th minute header by Ki Sung Yeung, saved by Schwarzer proved the teams were still going for it. One each was, of course, the final score.

Park Ji Sung (7) and Yoo Byung Soo of South Korea, with David Carney (3) and Mile Jedinak

Later on the same day, Bahrain beat India 5-2. India are therefore out of the competition and have conceded nine goals in their first two games – no doubt Bob Houghton will get the blame and be sent on his way, but really it lies with the AFC for their qualification procedures that guarantees two minnows qualifying (from the AFC Challenge Cup) without having to beat the higher ranked teams knocked out of the qualifying tournament to make way for them. Both South Korea and Australia are certain to qualify if they draw or win their final game, Bahrain also know that a win will see them into the quarter-finals.

I do like to keep in touch with how the tournaments continue after I have left, even though I had made it to Cheltenham before the next match started. At the end of the Australia v South Korea game, I met up with Paul and Kevin and soon discovered a lack of public transport around the stadium. We therefore hopped the media bus back to the main stadium, even though this was further than we wanted to go. We then choose to take a quick snack at the food hall of the neighbouring mall, even though this was heaving with crowds. In the most popular mall in the country, Friday night is the most popular time. This is probably also the most democratic part of the country, where wealthy locals rub shoulders with off duty “guest workers”. Naturally all the on-duty staff were imported, and even the Qatari families still need a Filipino nanny if there is a push chair to be pushed!

From the mall, it was a taxi back to the hotel. Fifteen minutes driving, but only after fifteen minutes queuing to get out of the car park. The taxi driver was trying various methods of avoiding the queues, as Qatari taxi meters do not ramp up the Riyals while waiting in a jam! These efforts probably saved us about 10 minutes! From the hotel, the limousine ruches us in comfort to the airport

So we had nearly two hours in the strangely functional airport. Naturally everyone is pushed through the duty free shop on entry, but only a fool would not notice prices for duty free here is much more expensive than any UK High Street. Upstairs is a cafeteria no less. One would expect something more opulent from a country that prides itself on opulence – but then I could see no locals here, so I guess none have cheap enough tickets to be turned away from the lounges.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I changed planes at Dubai, bidding farewell to Paul and Kevin heading to Gatwick (as I went to Heathrow). All of us were on near full planes, and the journey back was not in the comfort of the outward flight. The duty free prices at Dubai are better than Doha, but I could not be bothered. From Heathrow, I need a bus to get back to my mother’s home (where my car is parked), and then drive in two stages (with a stop at my own home, for about an hour) to Cheltenham. We lost.

Meanwhile, Iran beat North Korea 1-0, and thanks to an own goal, three minutes into injury time, Iraq took the points against UAE. This meant Iran could not be overtaken as Group D leaders, while a draw against North Korea would assure Iraq of also appearing in the quarter finals.

When group A concluded on Sunday, Qatar got two early goals to set them on the way, and added another late on. The Chinese struggled despite an early goal, with Uzbekistan levelling before half time, and then going ahead just after the break. China were soon back on level terms, but they must have known that with Qatar winning, a straight victory of the Uzbeks would not be enough. If three teams were to finish on 6 points, China needed a two goal lead at least, but they never got beyond level terms, and went home again without reaching their potential. Their consolation, (hopefully coincidental), was a new Qatar-China oil deal signed the day after Qatar had beaten China.

On Monday, Japan ripped through the already out Saudi Arabia. Three goals up within 20 minutes, and two more added in the second half. Saudi Arabia used to be a power in Asian football, but they now can only look on as the power has switched to the East. Syria’s opening match victory over Saudi had shown them up from the beginning, of the teams that did not make it to the quarter finals, I feel Syria were the most unfortunate. Against Jordan, they went a goal up, but conceded an equaliser, (an own goal at that) before the break. A draw would be enough for Jordan, but Odal Al Saify scored on the hour mark to take his side through.

Draws would be enough to take both South Korea and Australia through from Group C, but the Koreans were not having that against India. In the 12th minute, India scored through a penalty, but this only brought the scores back to 2-1. South Korea ended up 4-1 winners, but either this Indian goal, or their failure to get a fifth meant they finished second (on goal difference) to an Australia side who struggled to beat Bahrain. Mile Jedinak scored on 37 minutes, but the reports give Mark Schwarzer, the goalkeeper as man of the match in a 1-0 win. Finally, a goal midway through the first half gave Iraq victory over a defensively minded North Korean side, whose tournament record (including a missed penalty) was none scored, two conceded. The North Koreans did not even finish bottom of the group, as late goals meant Iran ended up 3-0 winners over UAE, two of the goals came after both teams had a player sent off.

So the quarter final line up is (group winners listed first)

Friday: Japan v Qatar, Uzbekistan v Jordan

Saturday: Australia v Iraq and Iran v South Korea

At the risk of being wrong quickly, (this post is made less than two hours before the first game starts), I cannot see beyond the two group winners (Japan and Uzbekistan) in the first two games. The second games will be much more difficult to predict. I think Australia may just shade the match against Iraq, while it is “Iran’s turn”, in the other game. This is the fifth successive tournament where Iran and South Korea have met in the quarter-finals, Iran won in 1996 and 2004, while South Korea were victorious in 2000 and 2007. On all four occasions, the match winner has then succumbed in the semi-final, and ended up taking third place. With Japan as the likely semi-final opponent, history may well repeat itself

Arabian Days.

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Having spent our first few days in Qatar in a football intensive mode, ticking off all the grounds, and getting to see all 16 teams play their opening game, the final three days were more relaxed, allowing us to see a little more of our surrounds, and choosing the better game each day.

For the first of these, we picked on a return trip to the Khalifa International Stadium. Having been beaten in the opening game, Qatar would need to pull out all the stops against a Chinese side whose victory over Kuwait had been competently managed. The earlier match would see Uzbekistan take on Kuwait, and on the evidence of the opening games, we felt this would not be a difficult task for the central Asian team.

The Stadium is part of a vast complex, known as the Aspire Zone. From my earlier visits, I had seen the stadium, the Ladies Sports Hall (which was being used as a media centre), and the Villagio Shopping Mall. But this was only part of the complex, mainly built to stage the 2006 Asian Games. (For countries in Asia, the Asian games are a very prestigious Olympic type multi-sport event. Like the Commonwealth games, but much more serious).

The two blue half domes are an indoor stadium, and the aquatic centre (i.e. swimming pool). The arches are part of the main stadium, while the tower is called “The Torch” and houses restaurants and conference venues.

Further back in the complex, there are all manner of training pitches, and a grass park area, given over as a fan zone. It was 5 Riyal (almost a pound) to enter, and most of the locals had decided it was not worth the money, leaving a few kids playing small sided football in cages, a row of food stalls without customers and sponsors stands wondering where the punters were. All arranged on a pleasant lake side location. No doubt when the football has finished, families will walk to the lake from the mall, to sit and eat picnics or play ball.

The “Fun Zone’s” Big Screen.

While wandering around, I saw Uzbekistan take the lead against Kuwait on the big screen, but did not tarry – instead taking a walk around the outer perimeter of the big stadium.

By the time I was in front of a TV screen again, Uzbekistan were 2-1 up. I now watched the closing minutes, and to be honest, Kuwait had most of the play, and were unlucky not to level the game in this period. I understand though that this was something of a late recovery, and the Uzbeks deserved the points for the performance over 90 minutes. And so once again into the stadium.

Needing a win in their second game, Qatar started on the offensive, and really should have gone ahead following a defensive error by Zhao Peng. This allowed Qatar’s Uruguay born Sebastian Soria a clear shot on goal, which he mis-kicked and sent wide. China soon came more into the game, which by mid half, had become end to end. In the 25th minute, China’s Deng Zhoxiang headed narrowly wide, but this was followed within a minute by two attempts at the other end by Yuseh Ahmed. The first went into the side netting, but the second, which followed a sublime piece of control, was thundered into the net.

I would have said that China had more of the play in the remainder of the half, but having more of the play means very little. This is especially true when one of your opponents is on form, and this was Yusuf Ahmed’s time. Receiving a pass on the edge of the penalty area, and with his back to goal, he turned in a move which was too much for defender Du Wei and slotted the ball into the bottom corner. Two nil to Qatar, and only seconds of injury time after the goal.

Qatar did a good job of shutting down the Chinese in the second half. China have always been known as a team that lacks the confidence to come back from behind, and they gave precious little sign of changing this. Indeed, while China had most of the ball in the second period, the best of the few real chances created went to Qatar. China’s cause was not helped, in that after making all three substitutions before the 60 minute mark, they played the last part of the game with ten men, following an injury to centre half Zhao Peng.

I would like to say that the locals were ecstatic over their victory, but in fact they were quite quiet about it, and the noise in this stadium never matched that generated by the Syrians or Indians for their games. The crowd was, I believe, made up mainly of actual Qatari citizens rather than the more numerous guest workers. This assumption comes from the fact that many were wearing their Arab robes.

The day finished with a sizable group of both English and German groundhoppers sharing a table in the Ramada, drinking beer at £7/pint, and watching English football live on TV. There are not many bars available in Qatar, the beer is expensive, and I feel the atmosphere is not helped by the lack of a smoking ban, (i.e. it was smoky). One has to show your passport or other identity to get in. I saw two people in Arab robes talk to the doorman and leave, (perhaps turned away for being a local Muslim?), leaving the customers in the bar as 90% white.

For my penultimate day in the territory, we had chosen the evening game, the clash between South Korea and Australia at the Qatar Sports Centre. This gave us a chance to get out of the city for the day. We looked at the various touring options suggested by our hotel, but as they started at over £50 per person, even for the straight forward coach tour, we did not fancy them. Anyway, a quick enquiry showed that car hire could be achieved for 130 Riyals, around £24 per day. The only catch was that this was Thursday, and the car hire offices (except in the airport) would be closed the next day. But as we did not need the car for the evening, this being the closest ground to our hotel, we chose to return the vehicle before the game.

We drove out to the North of the city, taking a snack in a fisherman’s café in Al Khor, the next town north of Doha. The fishermen were invariably Indian in origin, but the fishing dhows are traditional. The welcome in the café was friendly, the food and coffee relatively cheap, and certainly good.

We ventured further north on the highway, which for most of its length is subject to road works, as the infrastructure of Qatar is in the middle of an incredible building process. In a couple of years time, a three line highway will connect Doha with the northern tip of Al Shamal, but one wonders how much traffic this will take. Maybe the Al Shamal Sports Club can gain promotion, and there will be hordes of football fans heading up the motorway to their new stadium.

Al Shamal is another fishing village, not much different to Al Khor, but you cannot miss the new stadium as you approach. What you can miss is the fact that it is a new football stadium, styled as a traditional fort, with the floodlight pylons barely visible above the towers. This is as close as we could get, with the car park and access roads not yet completed.

The new stadium of Al Shamal Sports Club

A “used dhow” in Al Shamal Harbour

From here we head westward. We are now driving on a tarmac road, but through the desert. This is not the rolling sand dunes of “Lawrence of Arabia”, but a hard rocky and flat surface – the rocks making it impossible for even a 4×4 to drive off the road. There are sparse low bushes and the occasional tree out of this barren landscape, and from time to time we saw camels grazing. Following the ancient arab proverb, “Trust in Allah, but first tether your camel”, we could see that these camels had their front legs tied together. This allowed them movement across the area to graze on the meagre rations, but prevented them from breaking into a run, so they would still be close when their owner returned.

Further west, one reaches the Al Zubarah Fort. In a land with few sites for the tourists, this is picture postcard land, but it is in fact both small, and rather recently (1936) built. This of course means that it is in a good state of preservation. The old town that it was built to protect having disappeared into the sand, as the pearl fishing industry has practically died out from Qatar waters, and the population has migrated to Doha. We arrived around one o’clock, and the guidebooks said the place would be closed. It was certainly deserted, and we saw no one else, but the door was not locked, so we just walked in and looked around.

All in all, we made a 300 km trip around the north of the country and were away from the city for less than 6 hours. With petrol (the premium brand) at 15p/litre, we paid under £4 for fuel, a total travel cost for the day of 150 Riyals, less than £30.

We returned the car, and walked for 30 minutes around the construction sites to the Qatar Sports Club. By this time we knew that Saudi Arabia had lost 1-0 to Jordan. Saudi Arabia had sacked their coach, Jose Peseiro after their opening defeat by Syria. Nassar Al Johor returned for his fifth spell in charge, but he must have known this was a stop gap measure, as the second defeat left them knocked out, and with Japan still to play. Indeed within a day of the Saudi team returning home, the entire management team was gone, while Prince Sultan bin Fahd lost his job as president of the Saudi FC after the second defeat to be replaced by Prince Nawaf bin Faisal. (Is there a common theme here? Naturally with changing members of the Royal family as leader of the association, it is no surprise that the hiring and firing is done directly by the King).

So with Saudi already knocked out, Syria knew that a win in this match meant certain qualification for the next round. Syria had the majority of the crowd at the Qatar Sports Club willing them to get past the group stage of the Asian Cup for the first time. Japan, however are happy to be favourites and play it with confidence and a certain swagger. It makes for an interest game as the noise levels rise for Syria’s breaks. It is the running of Shini Kagawa that breaks the spell, a long run sees him take the ball from the left wing to the right side of the six yard box, his shot is stopped, but Matsui lays off the loose ball to Hasebe to open the scoring on 35 minutes.

The second half starts with a similar pattern, Japan confident but not quite doing enough to unlock the Syrian defence again, while breakaways at the other end are always dangerous.

On the seventy minute mark, we have what has to be the most controversial incident during my trip. As Japan half cleared a Syrian attack, the Syrian attacker is closest to the goal. The ball is immediately played back to his feet, and the linesman’s flag is raised. Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacts quickly, diving for the ball, and bowling over the Syrian before pushing it away. The referee’s first action is to signal to the linesman to put down his flag, as he was ruling the attacker not offside.

If the attacker was not offside, then the laws are clear – a penalty for Syria, and a red card for the goalkeeper. This is the decision of the referee, but it takes some four minutes of protest before the Japanese substitute goalkeeper sees the ball kicked past him from the spot. Looking at the replays, the reason for the referee’s decision is clear, but not whether he got it right. Two players, one from each side went for the cleared ball, and if the Japanese was the only player to touch the ball, then the referee would be right. If the Syrian got either the kick or a deflection then the offside is correct. A goalkeeper can be sanctioned for a challenge on an offside player, (although a red card would then be harsh), but a penalty cannot be given as the ball is already dead.

After the match, we see the Asian way of sweeping controversy under the carpet. While every goal scored in this tournament has been replayed on TV from many angles, the crucial challenge prior to the penalty is only ever broadcast from the one camera angle. This leaves the matter of whether it was a through pass or not debatable, although it does appear that the white boot of the Syrian player is the one that kicks the ball. At the press conference, the Japanese coach insists that there will be an appeal against the red card, and naturally we await the result with interest. But the appeal is dismissed, not because the referee was correct, but because the appeal was not made in time – apparently it must be made within two hours of the end of the match. Now it could be an hour or more before the coach is finished with the press conference, making it almost impossible for the appeal to reach the authorities in time. I loved the AFC statement, “No appeal was made in time, everything else is correspondence”.

Seven minutes later, the referee gives another penalty, with far less fuss. Shinji Okazaki is fouled by Ali Dyab, and Japan retake the lead through Keisuke Honda. From this point on, the game is almost one way traffic as Syria attack desperately against the ten men of Japan, and they are given six minutes of injury time, (although with the penalty delay, this is on the low side) . It was a Japanese breakaway that caused the biggest incident. Nadim Sabag was booked for fouling Okazaki near the edge of the area. As the Japanese delay taking the free kick, Sabag does not keep back tne yards, and picks up his second booking without the ball coming into play since the first

The free kick is cleared, and this is the last incident of note. Japan and Jordan end the day on 4 points, Syria on three, but the advantage is with Japan whose final match is against Saudi Arabia.

South Korea and Iran take plaudits in Groups C & D

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Having kept my exploring to a minimum over the first couple of days, I finally got to walk part way down the Corniche on Monday morning. This is long curving bay is over three miles long, with my hotel and the new constructions at one end, while the older town is at the other. For the whole length, there is a dual carriageway road between the Corniche and any buildings, whereas on the seaside of the road, there is an expanse of grass, and a paved walkway next to the sea wall. Although the waters are very shallow, there is no access to the sea, or any beaches within the city.

At my end of the walk, where the gleaming new skyscrapers compete for attention, the effect can be quite spectacular, although at all times one can hear the steady noises of construction, reminding you that much of this area is incomplete. Once clear of this area, though, there is little around you, and no places to stop until the half way point, where there is some type of restaurant, and an Asian Cup sales booth.

At this point, we meet up (by chance) with Rob, who is fresh in from the airport, having not even checked into his hotel. He is picking up match tickets for eight games over a four day period. Paul and Kevin are trying to find their tickets for the rest of the tournament, and although the rigmarole of buying the tickets is long winded and slow, this is completed, with the exception that we are told the first game on the list – Australia v India at Al Sadd – is sold out.

This is a blow, as it is the only time we intended to go to this ground; and it is resolved to reach the stadium early in the hope tickets will become available.

The Stadium at Al-Sadd, seen from the outside

However, it is too early to be early, so we take a taxi to the Souq Waqif, further along the Corniche. Here we stop for a coffee and a snack from a Lebanese styled coffee shop. I think the person serving was from Bangladesh. We looked around the souk a little, but it had none of the hustle and bustle of say, its equivalent in Tunis. It does not appear to be greatly in use by the locals, and as a tourist trap, it would be better placed in a country that welcomes more tourists. It is in fact, the row of coffee shops and restaurants that runs down a wide street through the middle that brings the customers in.

Englishmen Abroad – from left, Rob, Kevin, John, Ratty and Paul

When we looked a little closer, we concluded that it was in fact a faux souq, recently renovated to look as visitors may expect a souq to look, but if the stall holders are not calling out for the custom of those passing by, (and indeed few are passing by), then it really does not have the feel to it.

The locals are more likely to be found in the mega shopping malls, which look the same here as any other city in the world, and with the same shops and fast food joints in most, they need some other feature to bring the consumer in. There is one near the main stadium and it is made to look like an old Italian town – with a reminder of Venice as “Gondolas” float down a central “Canal”. The ceilings are painted as blue sky with clouds, which gives a strange feeling when one steps inside after dark.

Inside the Mall, balloons stick to the painted ceiling

There is a lack of description here for games five and six, due to a computer fault, and the rather basic fact that they deserve little description. What does need to be mentioned is the Jassad bin Hamad Stadium, home of Al-Sadd.

This is a neat and very attractive modern stadium. All four sides are square to the pitch, and there is a single tier of seats which gives way only to the VIP areas on the main side. Well, to be accurate, VIP is now the highest price for tickets for ordinary mortals, the sponsors and invited guests here are promoted to be VVIPs. I am sure there is some special category for Sheiks and Sepp Blatter, more initials? Or just self proclaimed Gods?

The roof with covers all sides of the ground is glad in what appears to be metal, painted in metallic grey. The cladding is both under and over any superstructure, given the impression of a solid roof, that would be around half a meter thick!. The only support visible is cables hanging from four corner pillars, while the floodlights are on squat pylons coming out of the roof, and apparently trying to peer over the edge.

I must say I liked the ground, although for an international tournament, it is on the small side. Different sources place it at either 12,500 or 13,500 seats; which may mean it is the smallest of the stadia. Qatar Sports Club has been listed as between 12,500 and 15,000. [As they appear identical, I would assume Al Rayyan and Al Gharafa both hold the same number, around 25,000, whereas Khalifa supposedly held 50,000 for England, but a near capacity 25,000 for the opening game].

Al-Sadd’s ground is supposedly a cooled stadium. I am not sure exactly what this means, (it is not roofed), but I noticed some type of vent under every seat, so I assume cold air can be pumped through. This was entirely unnecessary in the cool January afternoon. When the ticketless arrived at the stadium, they were told that none were on sale, but there might be some available later. However, they managed to persuade the ticket office to call the stadium manager, and get tickets released. When the final figures were announced, it turned out that some 3000 seats (25% or more) were empty. The official figure was 9783.

In the following day’s paper, the AFC were appealing for more people to come to the games, but there was no explanation of how to achieve this when tickets are not offered for sale!

The majority of the support were Indians, this being one of the largest population of expats in Qatar. However, their team was never likely to do them proud, and the match was a cakewalk for Australia. A win by four goals was hardly a satisfactory result considering their dominance, but they appeared to declare in the second half. Tim Cahill got two of the goals, Harry Kewell and Brett Holman the others. The test for Australia will be the second game, when they play South Korea.

Having visited all five stadiums for the first five games, match six was the first to get a repeat visit. The match was South Korea v Bahrain at Al Gharafa. No problems getting tickets here, with a crowd of just 6669. Bahrain may lie not far from the coast of Qatar, but this has not persuaded their fans to travel over in great numbers. If they had done, they would not have been impressed, except in the final few minutes. South Korea spent most of the game well in the comfort zone, and Koo Cha Cheol scored just before and after the half time break to give them a two goal lead. It was only after a foul by Kwak Tae Hwi with five minutes to go that Bahrain found any hope. The Korean was sent off, and Faouzi Aaish converted the penalty. This meant a few nervous minutes for South Korea, as they ran down the clock, but they held on to the 2-1 victory.

The Group D matches saw us repeat the travelling options from two days previously, starting at Qatar Sports Club where North Korea were taking on UAE, and then going back to Al Rayyan to see the Iran-Iraq clash.

North Korea had an early chance to take the lead, following a clumsy challenge by Hamdan Al Kamali on Jong Tae Se. Hong Yong Jo stepped up and hit the penalty against the bar. Hong Yong Jo is one of three North Korean born players who play their football abroad, he has been at Rostov, while two others play for Wil in Switzerland. The team also includes three Japanese born Koreans, two of which play in Japan while Jong Tae Se is with VfL Bochum.

The North Korean fans, who all sat together in a block, all wearing shirt and tie, appeared to be the champions of a synchronised cheering contest. Led by a cheerleader, who saw little of the game, they almost all held small North Korean flags and waved them in unison

Wave to the Right, Please

UAE had very little to show in the first twenty-five minutes, but then Korean keeper needed to make a sharpish save when Ismaeil Matar received the loose ball after a defensive error, and they started to get more into the game and had several close shots.

Somewhat to our surprise, the North Korean fans were somewhat tardy in taking their seats at the start of the second half, leading us to wonder whether there had been mass defections, or if they might suffer criticism for a failing in their synchronised flag waving, once back in Pyongyang.

Meanwhile a long shot from Matar goes narrowly over the bar as UAE start the strongest in the second half. The game gradually slows down and by the time there are 20 minutes to play we are all resigned to it remaining scoreless.

This time the journey to Al Rayyan is less tense than two nights previously. Although a taxi I had booked had called me back to say he would not make it, Paul and Rob found a row of cabs waiting as they left the stadium. Paul sat in the taxi to claim, while Rob came looking for Steve and myself. Although by the time we reached the point the cabs had been waiting, it had been moved along by the police, Paul persuaded the taxi to circle the stadium, catching us up just before we may have given up. We arrived nearly thirty minutes before kick off.

The second game started in a lively manner with chances at both ends, and we did not have to wait long for a goal. A 13th minute cross to the far post was met by Emad Mohammed Ridha who headed towards goal. The score was accredited to him, although it appeared that Younnus Mohmood (who had scored the goal in the final, four years ago) got a boot to the ball before it could cross the line. Emad, incidentally plays his club football in Iran. Iran levelled things in the 41st minute when Teymourian found Rezaei just onside and needing only a step to pass a defender before shooting in from the right. Naturally, Iraq came back strongly, and Rahmati had to make two saves – from a Ala’a Abdulzehra header and a Samal Saeed long shot before the break.

Former Bolton player Andranik Teymourian celebrates the Iranian equaliser

Iraq started the second half with Samal Saeed shooting over after meeting a corner headed on by Younnis, while minutes later Mohammed Kassid had to be alert to fend off corners at the other end. Iran began to take control as the game moved on, Rezaei on the right wing keeping the ball moving and sending in threatening crosses, while two big centre halves pushed up and looked threatening whenever there was a corner or an opportunity for a long throw.

Although it seemed that Iran were in control, this had the potential to be fleeting, and it took a good block by Nosrati to stop Younnis putting Iraq ahead in the 70th minute. On 75 minutes, a chance fell to Rezaei, but he could only place the ball into the side netting. Iran finally got the breakthrough on 84 minutes, a tug on substitute Khalatabari’s shirt gave Iran a free kick, wide on the left wing, and a deceptively curving shot from Iman Mobili was missed by everyone as it found its way into the net. Iran should have increased on the lead when Hadi Aghili headed a free kick over the bar.

With the match complete, we had now seen all 16 teams in their opening games. The best games were the Iran – Iraq and Syria – Saudi Arabia matches, but no clear favourite for the title has emerged. The South Koreans certainly look strong, while the Japanese seemed a little unprepared. With the win against Iraq under their belt, Iran also may also fancy their chances. The local teams present a different puzzle. One of the coaches went as far as to comment on the fact that not one of the teams who had competed in the previous month’s Arabian Gulf Cup had won their opening game in this tournament. Six teams play in both tournaments.

It is safe to say that more than half the coaches from this tournament will change jobs or at least become unemployed before long, but Saudi Arabia’s Jose Peseiro left quicker than most, receiving his marching orders after just one match.

Qatar – Day 3. Shocks and Excitement in Group B

Monday, January 10th, 2011

The area around my hotel is a little bit strange. It is called the diplomatic area, but that is only part of its “charm”. The embassy of the United Arab Emirates sits opposite the hotel, and is a low, whitewashed building surrounded by a similar whitewashed wall. It is anonymous as a building can be. Looking in the opposite direction though are all manner of tower blocks. Some of these may well be offices, but I think the majority are apartment buildings. The blocks are not anonymous, every single one is looking for some feature in order to stand out from those around it. Hence within the confines that no modern architect will use any building materials other than steel, glass and concrete, we have all sorts of design flourishes, curves, spikes, and the like. Some sort of Islamic motif is popular, so we have glass blocks seeming to rise out of the “ruin” of a traditional stone building, or large blocks with a domed roof. One feature many buildings here have in common, is that they are still under construction.

Tower Blocks competing for attention.

Between these blocks, the roads are all three lanes in each direction. Traffic however is sparse, but the traffic lights are set for a higher density, meaning you frequently wait for several minutes as nothing at all emerges from the side roads. The other side of town, however is a different matter, and our journeys to and from Khalifa have been dogged by lengthy traffic jams. It is with this in mind that we have some trepidation over our plans to see double header matches on the next few days. The opening matches in group B should prove the point. The early game is between Japan and Jordan, at the Qatar Sports Club, which is actually quite close to the hotel. I could probably walk it in 30 minutes. The later game is at Al Rayyan, the only stadium outside the Qatar municipality – we think it is around 25 kms. Kick off times are three hours apart.

The games on Tuesday are in the same order, and on the same pair of Stadia, so we intend to go to the first match, and try and book a taxi to meet us immediately after the game to transport us onwards. If successful, we will repeat the exercise two days later, if not then the latter trip will be to the second ground alone.

The Qatar sports club is the smallest of the stadia for this competition, and the closest to the city. It has a single tier of seats, nowhere near as high as that at Al Gharafa. The stands here are square with the pitch, and there is enough artificial grass overlaying to suggest that a running track has been covered up. One side is given over to the main stand and boxes, and from this side, the backdrop is the series of constructions going on in the diplomatic area

Japan clearly were in control of the early stages, although it took some time before they created a clear cut chance. On 25 minutes Makoto Hasebe shot through a crowd of players, a shot which Amer Shafi could only parry. Maya Yoshida put away the rebound, but was ruled offside. Hesitation by the Japanese defence allowed Hasen Fattah to get a shot from around the penalty spot after 29 minutes. It was a soft effort and went directly into Kawashima waiting hands. It took a fine save from Shafi to stop Kagawa putting Japan ahead on 40 minutes. He collected a pass from the right just outside the area and then burst two defenders before unleashing a shot.

Completely against the run of play, Jordan scored in the last minute of the first half, the shot from Hasan Abdel Fattah was heading straight towards the Japanese goalkeeper, but Maya Yoshida stuck his foot in the way, deflecting the ground shot into the roof of the net. The Jordanian fans, who were clearly the majority of the crowd went wild. Could this be revenge for the 2004 quarter-finals, when the Japanese, by persuading the referee to change ends partway through a penalty shoot out, cruelly defeated the Jordanians. At half tme, Japan changed their main striker, bringing on Tadanari Lee, Japanese born, but of Korean defence, who had played under-19 football for South Korea. Japan looked rattled at the start of the second half. Dortmund’s young star, Shinji Kagawa was seeing a lot of the ball, but he was failing to link with his team mates. Just before the hour, Stuttgart’s Shinji Okazaki came on, allowing Kagawa to move to the more central position he fills for Borussia.

Jordan were doing a very good job in containing the Japanese, and pushing up, pressing and trying to keep the ball away from the Japanese in their own half. When they lost the ball, they were quick to fall back and hold formation, helped by the fact that Japan do not tend to break at speed. Still chances were being created with both Makoto Hasebe and Okazaki shooting narrowly wide. Taking off the lone forward Abdallah Deeb on 71 minutes, Jordan were now in a very defensive formation, with no outright striker. Jordan suffered a blow in the 77th minute when captain and influential defender Hatem Aqel was injured. Their resistance still held until into injury time, when Hasebe received a short corner and crossed it into the six yard box, where Maya Yoshida headed the ball past the slow to react goalkeeper. With a long period of injury time, mainly due to Hatem’s injury, Japan actually had chances to take an unlikely win, before settling for the point.

It was clear throughout the game that Japan had the more capable players, but they did not gel together well as a team. The team has suffered several injuries in the run up to the tournament, announcing two replacements at the deadline for changes (six hours before kick-off). They were also less prepared than most of the other teams here, with the climax to the domestic season not changing from its traditional New Year’s Day date. With this in mind, there is every chance they will improve for the other games.

At the end of the game, it was about a ten minute walk before I reached the point where the taxi had agreed to pick us up. My compatriots, Paul and Kevin were waiting, but no taxi. However, another car had offered to take us for 100 Riyals, (around £18), which we would have taken, had the actual cab not turned up suddenly, taking us on the meter (for 38 Riyals). With a couple of worrying traffic jams, we actually took around 25 minutes before the taxi dropped us, (still with five minute walks to the actual gates). Still there was a little over 15 minutes to go when I entered the stadium, and with stops to pick up a media tribune ticket, and grab a coffee and sandwich, taking my place with the national anthems in progress. It turned out that Paul and Kevin had a much more difficult time, taking almost all the spare time in order to reach their gate, and only entering the stadium as the national anthems were playing.

I do not have to describe the Al Rayyan (aka Ahmed bin Ali) Stadium, as my last post described Al Gharafa. The main difference between the pair is that at Al Gharafa, the seats here are red and black, rather than yellow and blue. After the classic finish, and the tense drive between games, I was pleased the game did not start in the most exciting of fashions. The atmosphere, however was electric with Syria having thousands of fans packing their half of the ground. Despite being closer, the Saudi Arabian team had only a fraction of the support. Apparently, there is a large Syrian ex-pat community with Qatar, which provides the basis of support. Our taxi driver late in the evening, who intended going to watch his team (India) play, felt that Syria, Iran and India would all benefit from the having very large communities in Qatar. Many of the Syrian supporters were standing throughout the game, and a crescendo of noise rose every time they went forward, or if Saudi just gave away possession. Although Saudi Arabia were considered favourites, the Syrians, maybe buoyed by the noise seemed to have the better of the early stages, and took the lead after a partial clearance on 37 minutes was met by Amer Dees who struck a well placed shot.

The goal seemed to spur Saudi Arabia into action, realising at last that this game may not be as simple as they thought it would be. Syria, after all are the only team to have come through the qualifying stages unbeaten, and they finished above China in the group. Saudi launched a series of raids down the wings at the start of the second half, and made two substitutions to improve their attacking options, the first of these was Taiseer Al Jassam, who came into the game at half time. The Syrian keeper punched out a corner on 60 minutes, only for Taiseer to head the ball back towards the goal, now the goalkeepers sight line was blocked by Naif Hazazi (the second Saudi substitute), and he did not see the ball until it was too late. Within minutes, Syria had regained the lead as the match on the field began to match the excitement in the crowd. The move started on the left, but the ball was crossed too long to be effective. It was then headed back to a more central position where Husein was in position to take his shot, and with a major deflection, Syria scored again. Having scored twice Husein, who had started the game as a defensive midfielder, moved up to be an attacking midfield role, after Adel Abdullah had come on as substitute. Saudi were now committed as an attacking force, but this made for an exciting game, as there were chances on the break, and both Husein, and Syria’s second substitute, Qussai Habib were keen to try and exploit the gaps. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia hit ball after ball into the area, where at times it seemed to bounce around like a virtual pinball. Mosab Balhous made a fantastic save from the head of Nawaf al Abid to keep Syria ahead as the game entered the four minutes of injury time. He then spent a minute getting treatment before the corner. The crowd was now getting noisier with each clearance- surely someone was going to step in and demand a decrease in decibels under health and safety legislation?

Celebrating the first goal

Finally, the whistle went and Syria could enjoy their victory. It is important victory for Syria, who face Japan next at the Qatar Sports Club. Seeing how Syria had a massive portion of the 15,768 crowd at Al Rayyan, it may be a very full stadium for this game. Japan should be desperate to make up for their disappointment in the first game, and should be capable of upping their game as the tournament progresses. Saudi Arabia will be even more determined to make up for their loss, and it will be interesting to see if this result was the peak for Jordan. After the opening two days, we certainly picked up a lot more excitement

First Days in Qatar

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Transferring from cold, damp, Heathrow to hot, humid Doha is a relatively straight forward process. We flew Emirates, leaving London somewhere near the back of one of the new A380 Airbuses. Emirates have more leg room than most airlines, and much better video entertainment, so with the plane being well short of full, the ride was quite comfortable. From Dubai, we quickly found our onward flight to Doha. Getting through immigration was slow, but it did not take us long to reach the hotel. Too early, in fact for the room to be ready, so we spent 90 minutes waiting around in the reception area before going up to the room. To be accurate, I spent the time in the lobby (where the internet connection is free, you have to pay to use it from the room), Kevin went walking and in search of the first match ticket of the trip.

I shall leave my impressions of Qatar itself for another blog, once I have taken more time to see it. This time I relaxed in the hotel until the room was ready, and then freshened up and took 40 winks before heading to the stadium.

When it came to obtaining tickets, the English visitors were in three categories. Those that had managed to obtain press accreditation, those who had bought tickets on the internet in advance, and those trying to buy tickets on the day. Despite the opening match being flagged as sold out even before we arrived in the country. Soon after arriving at the hotel, Kevin went on a trip to a ticket office and managed to get a ticket with just a few minutes of queuing. Dave, meanwhile had pre-ordered his tickets, and went to a different ticket office, in the shopping centre near to the Khalifa Stadium at about the time it opened in the afternoon. What he found was a disorganised scrum around the ticket booth. The booth was supposed to print both pre-ordered tickets and new ones, but just getting into a position and asking a question was near impossible. The ticket booth’s operators had a problem that you had to enter a single block number to see if there were any tickets available in the block, and they were continually searching the blocks that were sold, and not those that were not. They could not print all Dave’s tickets for different games due to printer problems, but he did eventually get his ticket for the opening game. He tried again after the game (and again unsuccessfully), before getting them the next day.

For Steve and I, picking up our accreditation for the tournament was straight forward enough, but this allowed us to use the Main Media Centre, and did not actually include match accreditation. Confirmation that we had been accredited for individual games is supposed to be sent by e-mail, but this was not done. The media web site did not have the confirmation during the morning, but when we tried again, it was in fact confirmed. This process where you cannot confirm much in advance that you are listed for tickets is repeated every game, but if you are not listed, they simply add you to the list as the media benches are not actually full.

The Khalifa Stadium is the National Stadium for Qatar. It dates back to 1976, but was massively renovated for the Asian Games in 2005, and will need to be rebuilt almost in its entirety for 2022. It has an athletics track, but this has been covered with an artificial grass covering for the event. On our arrival, the pitch itself is entirely covered with a white plastic sheet, the effect is enough to make visitors complain that they hoped to leave the snow behind in England. This was removed shortly before kick-off, to reveal a grass pitch in perfect condition. The stands are curved both behind the goal (to allow for the track) and also along the sides, meaning the centre is further from the touchlines than the corners, and the stands are deeper and go back further in these positions. There is a single tier of seating all the way around, except for two small gaps, as the stands for each side are not connected.

A second tier is added centrally on the West side of the ground, and above, some arched steel superstructure supports a stretched membrane roof. This is probably intended to keep the VIPs (and possibly the pitch) in shadow, rather than protect from other elements, but with all the matches at Khalifa having an evening kick off, this will not be put to the test.

An arch, asymmetrical to the west side’s structure rising above the east side, supported by a number of steel cables, and holding some of the floodlights, (there are also four stubby floodlight pylons rising out of the east stand – the west side lights are all held from the roof of the stand). On the approach, the ground has a slightly odd feel, hardly that of a major stadium. This feeling is not helped by the fact the ground is within a complex, surrounded by other structures, and the centrepiece is not the stadium, but the neighbouring Aspire tower. Note that about a third of the way up this structure, there is a TV screen, replaying live the match next door!

After an opening ceremony that was involved a large number of noisy fireworks, and some effective lighting affects, the games got away on time. Both teams lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, but in the early part of the game, Qatar were quicker to commit men to the attack, and by doing so left spaces in the defence that the Uzbeks could try and utilise. It was the experience of Alexander Geynrikh and Maksim Shatskikh that most likely to produce a goal, and Geynrikh did shave the post with one shot. But as they half continued, Uzbekistan seemed to have less conviction going forward, and seemed more satisfied to go into the break still level. Two free kicks, both taken by the Brazilian born Fabio Cesar Montizene may have threatened this equilibrium, but the best reached was again the post.

Qatar renewed their attacking intentions at the start of the second period, but they were not doing enough to cause any discomfort to Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks themselves seemed to have little intention of going forward, instead laying the ball back and trying what appeared to be ridiculous long shots. Only appeared to be, as one apparently purposeless backward move found centre half Odil Akhmedov some 25 yards out, from where he blasted a shot just under the bar to give his side a lead just before the hour.

That the home fans did not appear to have much faith in their team’s chances of recovery. When the official corwd of 37,143 was read out on 75 minutes, at least 10% had already left. A minute later, one of the home defenders made the cardinal error of a soft pass in front of his own goal, Djepparov was more aware than the other defenders, and Qatar were 2-0 down.

On the next day, we made our way out to the Al-Gharafa stadium for the other game in the group, Kuwait and China. Despite being a clear and warm day, there was a beat of a breeze for the afternoon, keeping the humidity down and meaning conditions for the match were very pleasant. The Al-Gharafa stadium was built in 2003, and holds 22,000. It is a modern stadium with a single tier of seats going around to a uniform height all around. There are slight curves both behind the goals, and along the sides, but there is no running track here. Blocks of seats are alternately blue and yellow, the club colours of Al-Gharafa in the Qatari League.

Both sides started the game in 4-2-3-1 formation and with a lot of speed and effort. Kuwait seemed to have the better of the early exchanges, and had what looked like a good appear for a penalty in the 13th minute for an apparent foul on Al Mutwa by Du Wie.. China’s best early chance saw Qu Bo hit the side netting after receiving an excellent crossfield pass from Zhao Xuri

Qatar had Mesad Nada sent off for kicking the Chinese forward Yang Xu after he had been fouled and both players were lying on the ground. It was a bit of a “Beckham moment”, but the Australia referee did get the decision correct. Immediately afterwards, a substitution took off Kuwait’s lone forward, placing them almost in a 4-2-3-0 formation. Although the early pace of the game had faded by this point, Kuwait were still trying to make good use of their 10 men, containing the Chinese, and then trying the break out down the wings, so as Bader Al Mutwa could push through the centre. Kuwait could have taken the lead on the stroke of half time, when a free kick taken by Al Mutwa was touched just wide by Hussein Fadhel.

Even with ten men, Kuwait had the better of the opening exchanges after the break, but it was China who scored first. A corner was part cleared to the edge of the area, from where Zhang Linpeng struck a shot, which was then took a massive deflection off Hussain Fadhel. A free kick from just outside the area ten minutes later was powerfully struck home by Deng Zhouxiang, adding to the Kuwaiti misery. China were well in control for the rest of the game and could have added another when Rong Hao was pushed through and forced a save.

Overall, Kuwait must be disappointed not to have picked up something from this game, but the Chinese proved stronger and took their chances. The official crowd for the game was 7423, over half of these were supporting Kuwait, while China also had well over 1000 supporters. No doubt some of the team’s supporters, especially among the Kuwait section were ex-pats working in Qatar, while other locals were at a premium.

Qatar Preview, Part 3.

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Group D. If there is a rule that every competition has to have a group of death, then this it is. But in Asia, death is more deadly than just a word. Iran and Iraq have recently fought a long and bloody war, while Iraq’s celebrations following their semi-final win in the 2007 tournament was followed by a bomb blast which killed 50 celebrating fans in Baghdad.

By winning the 2007 tournament, Iraq have been excused from the qualification this time. Prior to 2007, the Iraqi record was three successive tournaments in which they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage. For the 2010 World Cup, Iraq had an easy win over Pakistan, but were then placed in a difficult four team group with Australia, Qatar and China, and the added disadvantage of playing home games in Dubai. After drawing with China in the first game, they then lost in both Qatar and Australia. Some pride was regained with a home win over Australia and a fine win (which I saw) at Tianjin, in China. The result meant that the Chinese were out, while Australia were through with a game to play, while Iraq played Qatar in Dubai for a place in the next round. Qatar won this match 1-0. As Asian Champions, Iraq went to the 2007 Confederations Cup in South Africa. Their Asian Cup win was based on solid defence, and the Confederations Cup was little difference. In a group with South Africa, Spain and New Zealand, Iraq conceded only a single goal to Spain – but at the other end of the field, they did not score in any of their games, and hence did not reach the semi-finals.

In September 2010, Iraq played the West Asian Federation Cup, beating both Yemen and Palestine in group games, but then losing 2-1 to Iran in the semi-finals. November saw the Gulf Cup, and draws (both 0-0) with UAE and Oman, sandwiching a victory over Bahrain. This was followed by another semi-final defeat on penalties to Kuwait after a 2-2 draw. Kuwait won both the West Asian, and Gulf tournaments. The coach, Wolfgang Sidka has much experience, but mainly in the lower divisions in his native Germany. He is knownin the region having had a spell as coach of Bahrain, and both Al Arabi and Al Gharafa in Qatar. The team is captained by Younis Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in the previous tournament and will be relied upon to inspire the team again. Mahmoud plays for Al Gharafa in Qatar, one of six players who play there. Still, as a sign that some normality is returning to their home nation, ten of the players now play league football in Iraq. Others play in Iran (3), Indonesia (2), Turkey and Libya.

By contrast, all but two of the Iranian squad currently play football within their home country. One of the two exceptions is Javan Nekounam, who at 30 years old is about the best known of the current Iranian squad. At lot will be expected of the national captain in what may be his last major tournament. Nekounam plays for Osasuna in Spain along with the 26 year old Masoud Shojaei. There are a few other players in the squad who have been beyond the national borders, and best known in England would be Andranik Teymourian, formerly of Bolton Wanderers and Fulham. Teymourian was born into the Armenian community in Tehran and is apparently the only Christian in the Iranian team. Last summer, Teymourian was released from a disappointing spell with Fulham, and although both Blackburn and Sheffield United were reported to be interested in signing him, he returned to Iran after his work permit was not extended, and he signed for Tractor Sazi in September. At Tractor Sazi, he plays with another national team veteran, Mohamed Nosrati.

The past record of Iran places them as one of the best in Asia, with three appearances (1978, 1998 and 2006) in the World Cup finals, although never passing the first round. They won three successive Asian Cups in 1968,1972 and 1976, although they had the advantage of being hosts in both 68 and 72. Of the eight tournaments since then, they have lost in the semi-finals on five occasions, ending up in third place four times. The last of these was in China in 2004. Twice they were beaten in the quarter finals (including the last tournament), while only in Japan in 1992 did they fail to get out of the group. Qualification for this tournament was reasonably straight forward, topping a group including Singapore, Jordan and Thailand, Iran won all their home games and also the away match in Singapore. Recently, they were losing finalists in the West Asian tournament (to Kuwait). Iran have won this title on four out of six occasions it has been played.

The coach, Afshin Ghotbi does not have a senior playing career, having played for no one more senior than UCLA in California. Ghotbi moved to California at the age of 13, and started coaching there when he was only 20. He has been chief scout to the USA team, and assistant coach at Suwon Bluewings in Korea, and LA Galaxy in USA, and then for the Korean national team under Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek. He returned to Iran in 2007 as coach of Persepolis, who won the league title in 2008. Despite this Ghotbi disagreed with the club owners and left in the autumn. He was appointed as Iran head coach in April 2009, when bad performances under previous coaches had already dented their chances of reaching the World Cup. After the Asian cup, Ghotbi has already agreed to move to Japan and take over Shimizu S-Pulse.

Third of the teams in the group is the United Arab Emirates. Like Iraq, this is an Arabian Gulf Nation, which plays in the bi-annual Arabian Gulf Cup. Although Iran also borders the same piece of water, the Iranians are not Arabs (and consider it an insult to be called Arab), and do not enter the Gulf Cup. Indeed whenever I have read about the Gulf Cup on message boards, there always seems to be Iranians complaining about the name of the competition. In Iran, the waterway is known as the Persian Gulf, and they even name their own Premier competition, “The Persian Gulf Cup” (even though it is a league).

At the UAE, the coach for the last 18 months has been Srecko Katanec – a Slovenian who has played internationally for Yugoslavia and Slovenia. As a full back for Sampdoria in 1992, he played in the European Cup final at Wembley, losing 1-0 to Barcelona. He became coach of Slovenian club in 1998, but moved on in the summer to become Slovenian national manager. Under his stewardship, Slovenia reached the Euro finals of 2000, and the World Cup finals of 2002. He resigned after the team performed badly in 2002, and after a public argument with star player Zlatko Zahovic. This appears to be a pattern, he later coached Macedonia and resigned in April 2009 after a spat with Goran Pandev. In Asian terms, UAE always appears to be about, but rarely make an impression on the major tournaments. They have only qualified for one World Cup in 1990, losing all three group matches, but in the Asian Cup, they have qualified for all but one of the last nine tournaments. Having said that, they have left after the first round on five occasions. The exceptions being in Japan, 1992 when they were beaten semi-finalists, and four years later, as hosts, when they lost to neighbours Saudi Arabia in the final. UAE are members of the West Asian Football Federation, but have declined to participate in their major tournament. They have won the Gulf Cup once, on their own territory in 2007, and have been runners-up on three occasions. All of the 23 man squad for this Asian Cup play professional football within the UAE, and I am not aware of any having spent time abroad. Qualification was by the relatively easy Group C, with only three teams after India withdrew. Malaysia were beaten twice, and Uzbekistan in the away game.

That leaves North Korea, a country that decided not to bother at the start of the qualifying procedure, instead concentrating on their bid to reach the World Cup, while playing in the 2008 and 2010 Asian Challenge Cups. With its complex internal politics, nothing about North Korea is simple. It is well known that the North Koreans played in the 1966 World Cup in England. The rest of the story is less well advertised. After FIFA has decided that only one place in England would be available to countries from Asia, Africa and Oceania, all of the African entries withdrew, except for South Africa (who were expelled due to apartheid). The Asia/Oceania group only consisted of North and South Korea, and Australia, (South Africa would have played in it as well, had they not been removed), but FIFA originally scheduled it to be played in Japan. Then, for some reason, FIFA relocated the matches to Cambodia. This was not to the delight of South Korea who added to the withdrawals, leaving North Korea and Australia to play out two games in November 1965, with North Korea winning by 6-1 and 3-1. Although the North Koreans lost to the Soviet Union in their first game, a draw against Chile and victory over Italy meant they reached the quarter-finals, where they lost their 3-0 lead over Portugal, finally going down 5-3. After that, North Korean failures generally came in the qualifying stages, although they declined to even enter for 1998 and 2002. Their 2006 qualifying campaign came to an ignominious end. In a home match against Iran, with North Korean chances of qualifying already slender, the referee refused to award a penalty, and then sent off a Korean for protesting too much. This caused rioting amongst the fans, and the throwing of bottles and stones onto the pitch. In the end, riot police were required to re-create order and FIFA ordered their next home match to be played behind closed doors in Bangkok. In the 2010 World Cup qualification, North Korea started with a 9-2 aggregate win over Mongolia. This placed them in a group with Turkmenistan, Jordan, and South Korea. It sounded too good to miss, and I had made most of the arrangements to get to the match when it came out that North Korea would not agree to all conditions required to hold the match (which included flying the South Korean flag and playing their anthem at the stadium). As a result, the match was switched to Shanghai, China and was drawn 0-0. Fortunately, I was able (for a price) to reschedule my visit to June, and saw North Korea beat Turkmenistan 1-0. The following week, they beat Jordan 2-0 and reached the next round (I was in China, and saw the Chinese knocked out by Iraq). The return match against South Korea completed the group, (this was played in South Korea), a further scoreless draw being inconsequential as both teams were already through. North Korea’s record in four games was three wins, three draws, four goals scored and none conceded. In the next stage, they drew South Korea again, plus Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE. Again the home match against South Korea was played to a draw in China – this time 1-1. Of the matches in Pyongyang, the Koreans beat both UAE and Saudi Arabia, and drew with Iran. They also won their away match in UAE, and drew in Saudi Arabia, losing to Iran and South Korea. This was enough for them to finish second in the group and gain their ticket to South Africa. In the finals, they performed well against Brazil, going down to 2-1 defeat, but then crashed to Portugal and the Ivory Coast. Reports say this was received badly back home, and the team was subjected to public humiliation on their return, but the source of these reports has never been verified.

Whatever may have happened to the World Cup team on their return to North Korea, the squad for the Asian Cup is basically the same team, 17 of the 23 players from are in both squads, and all the players that started in the World Cup are there again. (Of the six players dropped, four did not take to the field in South Africa, and the other two were used only as substitutes). The reports did say that coach Kim Jong-Hun came in for special criticism, being accused of betraying Kim Jong-un (the heir apparent to Kim Jong-il as supreme leader). Kim Jong-Hun is no longer with the team, and the chief coach is now Jo Tong Sop. Jo has been coach of the under-19 team, which won the Asian U-19 championship in October. He has also acted as assistant to the previous coach and took charge of the team for the Asian Challenge Cup in February. Having not played in the Asian Cup qualification, North Korea needed to win the Challenge Cup to make it to this Asian final. Despite this, they did not send out their potential World Cup team, for what may have proved to be a useful preparation, but instead sent out a very young side. Despite a shaky start, the Koreans opened up with some stylish and attacking football to win the title. Only one of the players in Sri Lanka had played for the team I saw in World Cup qualifying in 2008, while four made it into the finals World Cup squad. A further three have been promoted to the senior squad for this tournament.

Not all the North Korean squad plays football in North Korea. Three members of the squad are Zainichi Koreans, (which means they were born in Japan). This trio are Ryong Yong-Gi and An Yong-Hak, both still based in Japan, and Jong Tae-Se, now with VfL Bochum in Germany. The North Korean captain, Hong Yong-Jo became, I believe, the first North Korean player to switch to a foreign club (with official permission) when he joined FK Bezanija, then in the Serbian Super League. A year later he switched to Russian Premier side Rostov, where he has now spent three seasons. In 2008, Kim Kuk-Jin moved to Corcordia Basel in the Swiss Second Division, and a year later he transferred to FC Wil, who this season have signed a second North Korean, Cha Jong-Hyok

Iran are rated 4th in Asia according to FIFA, but only 66th worldwide, Iraq’s rankings are 9/101, UAE 12/105 and North Korea 14/108. This suggests that Iran should be able to qualify, while the others are rather close to call. Indeed Iraq and UAE should be favoured by the climate. However, this group is far more complex. Iran and Iraq play each other first, and the winner of this game must be a favourite to qualify. This game is akin to a local derby in England, where form can go out of the window. The key to the group is the enigma which is North Korea. They are clearly quite capable of beating their own ranking and qualifying from the group. If North Korea beat UAE in their first game, then I think they will go through. If North Korea lose, then I would be surprised if they recover, although this is not the same as saying UAE will qualify.

Looking at the squad lists, and the 368 players who will be in Qatar, I find that 277 (just over 75%) play their football in their home country. Three teams, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE use only players from their own leagues. Qatar, China and India have just one player outside their domestic league, and Iran uses only local players, with the exception of two with Osasuna in Spain. At the other end of the spectrum, only four members of the Australian squad play in their A-League, and one of those is with the New Zealand side, Wellington Phoenix. The 91 players who play league football in “foreign” countries play in 29 different countries, although eight of these are playing in the tournament itself. Indeed, the hosts Qatar have the biggest number of Asian Cup foreigners. Six of these are with Iraq, and four with local neighbours Bahrain. Iraq is the only country, apart from Australia with more than half its squad playing outwith its own borders.

Top European nation in providing players to the tournament is England with nine. Seven of these are Australians (two of which do not play in the Premier League), while the other pair are South Koreans. There are eight Bundesliga players in the team, which appears to be the Japanese destination of choice. Five members of the Japanese team play in Germany, along with Hao Junmin of China, Sun Heung-Min of South Korea and Jong Tae-Se of North Korea. The South Korean team also utilises two players at Celtic. The only Asian country that has failed to qualify, but has representation for its league is Indonesia, thanks to two Iraqis at Persjia Jakarta. Two of the North African countries are represented, with a Qatari at Zamalek in Egypt, and an Iraqi at Al Ahly Tripoli in Algeria. The only person who plays in Oceania is Wellington’s Jade North. Of course, as an A-League player, he plays half his games in Australia (i.e. the away ones). Finally, there is an Indian playing in the USA for Kansas City in the MLS.

Only six of the coaches are nationals of the country they are coaching. Of the others, nine are Europeans, while the odd one out is the Iraqi Adnan Hamad, who now coaches Jordan.

Qatar Preview, Part 2

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Group B of the Asian Cup brings together Saudi Arabia, champions in 1984, 1988 and 1996 with Japan, champions in 1992, 2000 and 2004. In the last tournament, Saudi Arabia defeated Japan in the semi-finals, which meant that Saudi did not have to play in the qualifying tournament for this competition, while Japan had little trouble in negotiating their way through a group with Bahrain, Yemen and Hong Kong. They lost in 1-0 in Bahrain in their second game, but the other five group games were all won, with 17 goals scored and only three more conceded.

Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed coach of Japan at the end of August, replacing Takeshi Okada who had seen them through the qualifying games and the World Cup finals. Zaccheroni seems to be a surprising choice – he is well known in Italy, having had spells at Milan, Lazio, Inter, Torino and Juventus, but not having any success since Milan’s 1999 title, and generally only staying at each club for a short period. Eight members of the side selected by Zaccheroni ply their trade in Europe, while the rest are Japanese based. Hasime Hosogai will switch from Urawa Red Diamonds to Bayer Leverkusen in the winter transfer window. In the midfield for Japan will be Shinji Kagawa, the boy wonder of Borussia Dortmund’s first half of the season

The Saudi coach is Jose Peseiro, formerly an assistant to Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid, and coach at Sporting Club de Portugal, Panathinaikos and Rapid Bucharest. Having already failed to guide his side into the 2010 World Cup Finals, Peseiro needs a successful tournament if he is to extend his tenure. Saudi Arabia reached the final of the Gulf Cup last month, but were beaten 1-0 aet by Kuwait in the final.

Syria were impressive in qualifying, winning four games and drawing two, giving them a point more than China. Lebanon were beaten home and away, the Chinese at home and Vietnamese away, with the remaining games finishing 0-0. Syria have failed to qualify for the last three Asian Cup tournaments and have never gone beyond the group stage. They met Jordan, the final team in this group during the West Asian championships in Jordan. The match finished 1-1, and with Jordan losing 2-1 to eventual winners Kuwait, they ended up bottom of the three team group. After the West Asia tournament, Syria appointed Serbian Ratomir Dujkovic, whose c.v. included leading Ghana in the 2006 World Cup, but they then sacked him after just one friendly win (2-0 v Bahrain), the Syrian FA claim this was for being late in returning from vacation, while Dujkovic says it was a dispute over appointing his assistants. The new coach is Valerui Tita is a Romanian, combining the duties with coaching leading Syrian club side Al-Ittihad. In the last week, Syria have played Iraq twice, but Tita was only appointed in time for the second game, (which Syria lost) and not the first (which they won). 17 members of the squad play in Syria, only two for Tita’s club side. There are two European based players, Senharib Malki of Lokeren and Louay Chanko of Aalborg.

Jordan’s qualification started with an uninspiring 0-0 draw at home to Thailand and defeats in Singapore and Iran; but they recovered to beat both Iran and Singapore at home, and with another draw in Thailand, they ended up in second place. Going into the final qualifying match, Jordan have five points, playing at home to Singapore on 6, while the Thais, also on 6 were playing away to already qualified Iran. Saify and Beni Yaseen scored as Jordan won their game 2-1, while a last minute goal saw Thailand out. Despite home advantage, Jordan did not reach the semi-final of the West Asian Championship. They have only been in one Asian Cup finals before, reaching the quarter finals in China and then losing a remarkable penalty shoot out after the Japanese persuaded the referee to change ends with Jordan 2-0 up. Jordan scored three penalties, and then missed four in a row, losing 4-3 to the eventual champions. The coach is Adnan Hamad, who has had five spells as coach of his native Iraq side, including the 2004 Asian Championship. Most of the squad play in Syria, with players in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Cyprus.

FIFA rank Japan as 29th in the World, or second in Asia, with Saudi Arabia in 81st, Jordan 104th and Syria 107th. The Japanese are many people’s favourites for the tournament as a whole, but their preparation does leave something to be desired. The Emperor’s cup final goes ahead on its traditional date of January 1st, which means the Japanese players are still playing for their clubs, at home and the winter, while their opponents have been preparing in the region.

Group C features Australia, South Korea, Bahrain and India. South Korea secured their qualification by finishing third in the previous tournament, Australia as winners of a qualifying group, Bahrain as runners-up while India did not play in the qualification, but instead won the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. This is part of the unusual system used by the AFC in arranging their international tournaments. The first three in the 2007 Asian Cup were given direct qualification to the tournament, along with the holders. There were originally 24 teams to fight out for 10 further places, but North Korea, Myanmar and Turkmenistan withdrew without playing. With 21 teams now in the contest, there was a play-off game in which Lebanon beat Maldives 6-1 on aggregate and the surviving 20 teams were divided into five groups of four, two reaching the finals from each group. The final two places were given to the winners of the secondary international competition, the AFC Challenge Cup played in 2008 (in India) and 2010 (in Sri Lanka). Twenty teams were entered into qualification for the 2008 Cup, including the three sides who had withdrawn from the Asian Cup qualification and India – the only country to actually enter in both. After India won in 2008, they too withdrew from the Asian Cup Qualification, causing one group to continue with only three teams. Challenge Cup qualification uses centralised groups (all matches in single round-robin groups, in a single venue), and the host is then chosen from the final eight. The twenty clubs for 2010 included Maldives, after their early elimination from the Asian Cup. India is included in the draw for the 2012 Challenge Cup. I will only find out later if they or anyone else gets a double chance by entering the Asian Cup as well.

All but one of the India team are based in India, the one exception being Sunil Chhetri who plays for Kansas City in the MLS. A surprising number, however are listed as free agents, so there may be some who find new placings if they are successful in Qatar. Best known of the players is the veteran Baichung Bhutia who hopes to add to his 102 caps and 42 international goals despite recent injury. India do not have a good record in past competitions, and have only twice qualified for the finals. They finished second (to Israel) in 1964 in a very small tournament played in Israel. Until Israel switched to European football, their existence always caused friction in Asia, and in 1964 both Iran and Pakistan withdrew from the qualifying tournament as they were unhappy about the final venue, giving India a free ride. When India qualified again, for the 1984 Asian Cup, they finished second in a qualifying group played entirely in Calcutta. This time, as their qualification was via the Challenge Cup, all matches were again played in India, (India had exemption from qualifying for this competition). India fared poorly in the 2010 Challenge Cup, but this can be excused as the side entered was clearly a youth squad. They are the current holders of the South Asian Federation title after an eight team tournament played in Bangladesh in December 2009. Since 2006, the coach of India has been Bob Houghton, the former coach of Hastings United, Maidstone United, Malmo FF (twice), Ethnikos Piraeus, Bristol City, Toronto Blizzard, Al-Ittihad (Saudi, twice), Örgryte, Zurich, Colorado Rapids, China, Shanghai Pudong, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Uzbekistan and Changsha Ginde coach. Houghton was player-coach to Hastings at the age of 23, and has since been coaching for 40 years, without ever being out of work for any long period of time. He is most well known for taking Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final. India’s build up to the tournament has been marred by injury to Bhutia and by internal dissent, which has seen team manager Pradip Chowdhary resign (for a lot of Asian clubs, team manager is a non-coaching job). The last couple of India’s warm up friendly games were not played, just highlighting the problems that what may well be the weakest team in the competition is facing.

Bahrain is the smallest of the countries that have qualified for the finals. It is an Island in the Gulf, off the coast of Qatar. Until 1878, Qatar was actually ruled from Bahrain. I have noticed that part of the new rail systems mentioned in the Qatar bid document for 2022 World Cup is a rail link to Qatar. Bahrain qualified from a group including Japan, Hong Kong and Yemen with ease, winning their first four games. The first home game saw them beat Japan 1-0. They came close to reaching the 2010 World Cup finals as well, again finishing second to Japan in the first stage of qualifying, and then finishing third (to Japan and Australia) in the second phase. They did lose all four games against Japan and Australia at this stage. This gave them a play-off against Saudi Arabia (two draws) which was won on away goals and a final play off when they were beaten by a single goal and New Zealand went through. This is their fourth Asian Cup, but also their third successive time in the finals. Only in 2004 did they make it beyond the group stage, ending up in fourth place. In the Gulf Cup, they have three times been runners-up, but have never won the title – and they had a poor time in November when they were bottom of their group, behind UAE, Iraq and Oman. As with the hosts, Bahrain have been dogged by controversy over the number of naturalised players in their squad, which will probably include Jaycee John Okwunwanne, Abdullah Omar Ismail and Abdulla Baba Fatadi, all of which are African born, naturalised Bahrainis now playing in European Leagues. Okwunwanne plays in Turkey for Eskişehirspor, while the others are with Neuchatel Xamax.

The coach, Salmar Sharida is a Bahraini national, who has spent some time as coach as Pakistan, and as successful as anyone has been for them. Returning to Bahrain he coached Muharraq. This has always been the most successful club in Bahrain, and under Sharida they had their best ever season, winning all the domestic trophies, and the AFC Cup, (the only time any Bahrain club has won international honours).

Australia switched to the AFC in 2005, so this is their second Asian Championship. In the qualification for 2007, they countered little difficulty, winning three out of four games against Bahrain and Kuwait after the Lebanon withdrew, but they found the finals more difficult than they had expected – after a 1-1 draw with Oman, they lost 3-1 to Iraq but scraped into the second round with a 4-0 defeat of Thailand. They went out in the quarter-finals to Japan in a penalty shoot out.

Qualification for the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Asian Cup were taking place simultaneously, and this demonstrated the difference between Australia’s full squad, and the team they put out for matches played on non-official international dates, when players from the European Leagues were not available. By March 2009, the Australian record (half way through the final round of qualifying for the World Cup) was won 3, drawn 1 with the dropped points being away to Japan, but in the Asian tournament they had drawn 0-0 with Indonesia, and lost at home to Kuwait. Fortunately, they did not play another Asian cup game until the World Cup qualification was successfully completed. With European based players available, they beat Oman home and away and following a draw in Kuwait, they scraped through to the finals with a 1-0 win over Indonesia.

Australia’s coach is the German, Holger Osieck. He has previously coached in Germany, Turkey, Canada and Japan and his successes include the CONCACAF Gold Cup for Canada in 2000, and the AFC Champions League with Urawa Red Diamonds in 2007. Of all the teams in the Asian Cup, Australia have the most players based in Europe. Eight play in England, and three in Turkey. Only four members of the team play in the Australian League (and one of those is with Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand).

Finally, we have the South Korean team. As their qualification was automatic after finishing third in 2007, they played the 2010 World Cup without having to worry about Asian affairs. In the East Asian Championship at the start of 2010, they lost 3-0 to China – but this was with a squad very different to the one used in the summer for the World Cup. Not surprisingly, the squad for this Asian Cup bears more relationship to the World Cup squad than the EAFF title. A dozen of the players play in the Korean League, and three in Japan. 33 year old veteran, Lee Young-Pyo has 120 caps for the side, and now plays for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia. He has previously played with Spurs, PSV and Borussia Dortmund. Five of the squad currently plays in Europe. The uncapped 18 year old Son Heung-Min has broken into the Hamburg side this season, scoring three times in just seven appearances. Lee Chung-Yong is established at Bolton, while the expected star is Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United. Two of the Koreans play for Celtic, meaning the Scottish side could be the one that feels the effects of this competition most strongly. This pair includes Cha Du-Ri, son of Cha Bum-Kun formerly of Bayer Leverkusen, and a member of Korean side in the 1986 World Cup. Coach Cho Kwang-Rae has always been based in Korea, and won the Korean League title when coaching Anyang Cheetahs in 2000.

FIFA ranks Australia at 26th World-wide, which places them number 1 in Asia, while South Korea are the third in Asia, or 40th overall. I find this strange, and believe that South Korea should actually be ranked top of the list, ahead of Japan and Australia. Bahrain’s rankings are 7th/93rd and present a possible spanner in the works for the others, especially if they are slow to acclimatise. India are down at 142nd/23rd, and I must agree with FIFA’s representation of them as the weakest team in the competition.

Qatar Preview, Part 1.

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

The FIFA decision to place the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should cause greater interest in the 2011 Asian Cup, to be played in the same Emirate. Still, this tournament will not be taking many of the current stars of European Leagues away from their day jobs, nor will it present many new future stars, and so much of the tournament will be ignored by the European press.

For me, it will be the third time I have been out to see the tournament. In the previous two, China 2004 and South East Asia 2007, I managed to stay away the whole three weeks, seeing both the start and completion of the competition. This time, I can only see the first week. Judging by the last two editions, there will be plenty of interesting football and no lack of controversy.

To start with Qatar, the host. I am sure that many people know little about this small emirate jutting out into the Gulf from the Arabian peninsula. To start with, the place is not as small as many may think. A land mass of 4,400 square miles means that it is a little over half the size of Wales. This is a good comparison, as the population is also just over half that of Wales. Of course, there are differences, the GDP of Qatar, boosted by oil revenues (and little else) is far in excess of that of Wales. It is this revenue that allows them to stage a World Cup, whereas they probably feel the £25 million per season in sponsorship to Barcelona is merely small change.

For the 2011 competition, five stadiums are being used – the largest is the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, which holds around 50,000. The stadium is scheduled to stage 7 games, which could all feature the home side, should they go through as group winners and proceed to the final. The Al-Gharafa stadium, also in Doha holds 25,000 and is used by two local sides, Umm-Salal and Al-Gharafa themselves. It will stage eight matches, six in the group stages. Also in Doha are two stadiums holding around 15,000 – the Qatar Sports Club stadium is used, naturally by Qatar Sports Club, and shared by Lekhwiya and lower division Al-Sailiya, while the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium is the home of Al-Sadd. Qatar SC stages six group games and a knockout match. Al Sadd just three group games, a quarter-final and the third-fourth play off. Finally, Al-Rayyan is the only one being used that is outside the capital municipality (but not by far). This stadium will stage six group games. The official name of the stadium is Ahmed bin Ali, it is shared by Al-Rayyan and Al-Kharitiyat.

Qatar’s results in previous editions of the tournament have not been good, not even in 1988 when they again were the home nation. On that occasion, the 10 teams were arranged in two groups, with knock out rounds starting at the semi-final stage – Qatar won two, but also lost two of their games, and lost out on qualifying to South Korea and Iran. This time around they will be under the guidance of Bruno Metsu, the French manager who made his name by taking Senegal to the 2002 World Cup Quarter finals. In the last Asian Cup, Metsu was coaching the UAE, and while they were knocked out at the group stage, he became a Vietnamese national hero when the UAE won their last game to hand the home side a place in the quarter-finals. I expect the Qatar squad to be boosted by a number of naturalised players who are chosen from Africa, South America and from some or their Arab neighbours. Almost all the players for Qatar actually play club football within the Emirate, but one exception (and clearly one of their best hopes) is Hussein Yasser. Hussein’s father was an Egyptian coaching in Qatar at the time of his birth. He has been on the books of both Manchester United and Manchester City (without playing), but has European experience at AEL in Cyprus, Braga and Boavista in Portugal, and currently plays for Zamalek in Egypt.

In Group A with Qatar will be another “Gulf” nation, Kuwait. Kuwait have had a degree of success under the coaching of Serbian, Goran Tufegdzic. They are the current holders of the West Asian Football Federation title, held in Jordan in October, and more recently, the Gulf Cup when it was played in December in Yemen. In the first of these, they beat Iran in the final and in the second they beat Saudi Arabia with a single goal in extra time. They also defeated Qatar during the group stage. Kuwait have won the Asian Cup before, back in 1980 when they were also the hosts.

Kuwait qualified from a group including Australia, Oman and Indonesia, and started poorly by losing at home to Oman. Their second game was in Australia, but on a date when the Aussies could not call upon European based players – this may have been a factor in their 1-0 win. A second victory followed at home to Indonesia, after which they drew all their final three games to finish a point ahead of Oman. The final game was the return in Oman, with a crowd of 27,000 in Muscat. A win for Oman would have put them through, but the final result was 0-0.

Kuwait will be the final team to play the hosts in group games. Qatar’s opponent in the opening game will be Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks had a simple qualifying group, after India, who had been placed in the group won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 (which carried direct qualification), and pulled out of this alternative method of going through. This meant the Uzbeks were in a three team group, and the Malays were in the midst of a long run of poor form. Malaysia ended up losing all four of their games, while Uzbekistan and UAE each won the away match (both times 1-0) when the pair met. Most of the squad plays league football in Uzbekistan or other former Soviet Republics, which means their league seasons are well closed, and the team has had plenty of time to prepare and acclimatise. They recently drew 1-1 with Bahrain, a match played in Dubai, with Alexander Geynrikh of Pakhtakor scoring. One member of their squad, Jasur Hasanov plays club football for Lekhwiya in Qatar.

The fourth team in Group A is China. They also finished second in their qualifying group (to Syria), but qualification was never in doubt, with two wins over each of Vietnam and Lebanon. The Chinese have prepared with a series of uninspiring results (mainly wins) against second rate European teams in China. Latvia, Estonia and Macedonia being the last three to make the trip. Uruguay won 4-0 when they went to China in October. The Chinese will play holders Iraq in Doha before the tournament starts. They started the year with a moral boosting win in Tokyo in the East Asian Championship – which included a 3-0 win over South Korea, but this is not considered a big deal locally compared with the Asian and World Cups. Defeat to Japan in the 2004 Asian final still hurts in Beijing. Most Chinese national players now play in the Chinese League, which is reported to have improved recently (and to be less corrupt as well). The chief coach, Gao Hongbo was assistant to Arie Haan during the 2004 championship, and coached Changchun Yatai to the 2007 League title, (their only championship).

FIFA’s rankings place the Chinese at 87th, Kuwait 102, Uzbekistan 109 and Qatar lowest in the group at 114. China should be able to get through to the knock stages, and I feel that home advantage may well be enough to allow Qatar to join them – but neither of the others will be easy to beat.