Archive for the ‘ASIA 07’ Category

Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Still four more matches to report upon in the final week of my Asian tour. The first of these was Johor FC in Malaysia. As I explained in the Singapore piece, Malaysian football used to be entirely an competition between states. Malaysia is made up of 12 states, plus the city of Kuala Lumpur, which in a similar way to Washington in the USA is federal territory and not actually part of any state. 10 of the states are in Peninsula or Western Malaysia – between the Thai border and Singapore, whereas the two largest ones form the northern part of the Island of Borneo. The rest of Borneo is part of Indonesia, with the exception of the small sultanate of Brunei.

Until 1994, all of the states competed in the Malaysian League, while qualification for the prestigious Malaysia Cup was dependent on position in the league position. The actual format of the league tended to vary from season to season, changing every time the national team failed in international competition, with different formats for competition (in one or two divisions), or different numbers of foreign players allowed. The numbers in the league were normally 15 or 16 with the 12 states and Kuala Lumpur joined by Brunei, Singapore and on occasion by the Malaysian Armed Forces.

The rest of the set up was more similar to the County cricket system in England, than to our football competitions. If you consider the state FA’s as local equivalents of county associations – each then runs competitions for clubs within its region. In addition, there was a national cup (with very little publicity) for the same clubs, and a small number of them would compete in the Malaysian FA Cup (which is not the same as the Malaysia Cup) with the state teams. Within this framework, it should be noted that few if any of the club teams represent towns or villages, even though every town and village is sure to have its own football field. Instead most of the teams, especially the successful ones are named after companies. I have only been to a few matches in the local leagues, all in the Selangor League back in 1996. The first of these was on a town stadium, in Kajang – a sizeable town some 30 km south of Kuala Lumpur. The stadium was somewhat untidy, showing a lack of maintenance over the years, but was still a decent stadium. The home team for the match, however was not a representative of the town, but “Public Bank FC”. The match was played in late afternoon, trying to avoid the worst heat from earlier in the day, but having to complete before all light is lost soon after sunset. The ground is in a town centre, near a mosque, and the call to prayer at sunset was clearly audible. This remains the only match I have ever seen with an interruption for a “prayer-break”.

After Singapore left the Malaysian League in 1994 due to the corruption scandal, they carried on for a while with a single division of 15 teams, but in Malaysia, the pattern has always been to change things around every few years. Basically, every time they lose in qualifying for Continental or World Cups. The alternatives are to either increase or decrease the number of foreigners allowed, or to re-organise the league. During the late nineties, the introduction of a professional league was the big thing, (after the team’s failure at this year’s Asian cup, one of the letters to the paper said they would be better reverting to an amateur league), but when they decided they again wanted a two division league, they needed more teams, so from 1998, some of the club teams gradually entered the leagues. One of the first of these was Johor FC – which is connected to a company called the Johor Corporation (JCorp for short). For a while the shared the stadium with Johor state, in the city of Johor Bahru – meaning that we had two teams, called Johor and Johor FC sharing a ground in Johor Bahru. If this was not confusing enough, another club team called Pasir Gudang later joined the league, playing at a stadium owned by JCorp. For 2007, Pasir Gudang merged with the Johor state team and play in Johor Bahru – as Johor Pasir Gudang, while Johor FC play now play in Pasir Gudang. Apparently the locals are not confused. I am confused enough that while I knew the two towns were about 30 km apart, I could not work out whether Pasir Gudang was East or West of JB. At least some things are simple – when I looked the place up on the internet, I found only one hotel – the sketch map provided showed it in the vicinity of the football stadium, so I booked a room. I then took a bus from Singapore to JB – a wonderful journey as one has to get off the bus twice, to pass through Malaysia and Singapore border control. The second time you have to take your luggage with you. Arriving in JB, I found the bus out went from a different bus station about 5 km away. With the local taxi drivers somewhat reluctant to tell me how to get to the other bus station, I ended taking a taxi across to my hotel (Pasir Gudang turned out to be East of JB).

The stadium was indeed, no more than a ten-minute walk from the hotel. I passed a small shopping centre and the bus station – but apart from that the place seemed to have nothing to offer. The roads were wide, but near to empty, I could spot some industrial sites in the distance but little else. The stadium at Pasir Gudang is sandwiched between two high stands of concrete steps. The centre section on one side has a high roof, with a couple of radio commentary boxes at the top. Behind one goal is a large, manual scoreboard, while spectators behind the goals can make use of small sections of rather high wooden benches. The game itself was truly entertaining, with the visitors, Sarawak trying hard to escape their fate at the bottom of the table, but finding Johor FC too good for them. The final score was 3-1 in Johor’s favour.

The following morning, and from Pasir Gudang’s bus station, I made the five hour journey up to Kuala Lumpur and from there, a day later onwards to Brunei. The flight was with Air Asia, the biggest of the budget airlines which have spouted up across Asia since deregulation. You may recognise the name – it will displayed on the kit of the referee and his assistants at today’s game. Air Asia are also a sponsor of Manchester United. This is one of the biggest problems for Asian football – it is considered more productive to sponsor English football than to put money into the local games – even though the increasing demands of the Premiership to consume money, means that only subscription channels show the matches in most countries.

Brunei took its independence from the UK later than Singapore and Malaysia, in 1984 and has never espoused democracy. Instead the Sultan is an absolute monarch. It has been a sultanate with the same family ruling for over 500 years. Indeed 500 years ago, the territory covered by the Sultanate included the entire island of Borneo, plus parts of what is now the Philippines. Over the years, different countries and the European empires sliced away at this territory, and what was left became a British protectorate in 1888 to avoid the risk of disappearing absolutely. The country has a population of around 380,000 and is a rich and prosperous country, thanks mainly to oil. It must leave many of those no longer in the sultanate envious of what they may have been part of. The Sultan himself was for a period, considered to be the richest man in the world, but a bad investments (mainly by the Sultan’s brother, who was accused of embezzling £8 billion from the country – although the charges were later dropped) have decreased that. The wealth does spread around the country, with free education and a health service, plus no income or corporation tax. As a result, certain things such as taxis and hotels are not cheap, and I was travelling with a German hopper on limited resources. The last bus into town from the airport left before our flight arrived, and so we hitched a lift to save the taxi fare. The friendliness of the locals was shown by the fact that our efforts to hitch lifts were always successful, and that people would go out of their way to drop us off where we wanted to go. As it happened, the visit coincided with the end of the Sultan’s birthday celebrations, (61 years old), which run for 5 weeks each year. The festivities were on the padang (a local word for the equivalent of a village common). Centre pieces appeared to consist of a tug of war contest, fireworks and a parade of floats all sponsored by either companies or government departments.

The city of the main town was very busy for these festivities, especially on match day – and in advance we were treated to a special performance of the FA of Malaysia’s competence. The match was scheduled as Saturday 8.45 as part of the last day of the Malaysian League season. About a week before the match, we noticed the date had changed to Sunday on the official fixtures – this turned out to be in response to a Brunei request to switch it away from the celebrations. On calling the Malay FA, we were told 4.15 on Saturday, before the main evening celebrations in Brunei, but by the time we arrived the match was back in the evening. Although listed at 8.15 in the local paper, it actually kicked off at 8.45 – the same time as the match in neighbouring Sarawak, as the winner of the title was between the two away teams, Kedah playing in Brunei, and Perak.

Brunei’s football team is Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota Football Club. Not surprisingly this is generally abrieviated to DPMM.. The name of the football club is one of the titles conferred upon the crown prince of Brunei, Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah. Under the club name, the team was formed in 1994, with the Prince himself in goal. They played in local competition until 2005, when they took over the mantle of being Brunei’s team in the Malaysian League. Much of the support just refers to the team as Brunei, but the change has brought new life to the club, as they have moved from being mid-table in the Malay second division, winning promotion last season, and finishing in third place this time. As a Brunei team, naturally Brunei born players, who would be foreigners elsewhere in the league are not counted as such, and their one Malay player alos does not count as a foreigner. They have three true foriegners, signed from Korea, Chile and Croatia

We arrived at the stadium around an hour before the expected kick off, and found the ground almost deserted – but by the time the match actually started, there were about 5000 people in the stadium,. The normal crowds are between 7 and 10,000 – which is around 2-3% of the population of the country. This actually makes Brunei one of the world’s football hotspots. Less than 1% of the population of England watch the game during a typical weekend. Only Monaco, where the average crowd of 13,000 equates to 40% of the population clearly has a greater support in these terms than Brunei – but then much of Monaco’s support comes from France, whereas few people travel from Malaysia to watch Brunei. The ground is a large bowl with a running track, and cover over one side only. Kedah, knew they had to win the game in order to take the Malaysian title, and started out looking as if they were determined to overpower Brunei, despite the home team’s third place in the league. It was no surprise that Kedah went ahead in the 14th minute. However, after that, DPMM made a substitution, and reorganised the formation, and they were the dominant team for the rest of the game. It was only by good fortune that Kedah managed to hold on to win the game and the title. Two weeks ago, Kedah added the prestigious Malaysia Cup title to their honours for the season, beating Perak with 77,000 watching at Bukit Jalil. (That is more than four times as many as turned up there for Malaysia’s Asian Cup games).

From Brunei, I flew directly back to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. In a change from the crowds on the budget airlines, I went on a near empty Brunei Airlines flight. From HCMC, I was able to arrange to see two matches in the Vietnamese League, one in each of the first and second division. Both were about an hour’s drive from the city, but I spoiled myself and rather than trying to sort out local transportation (there would have been bus services), I allowed the tour booking office to arrange transportation for me (car and driver) at US$50 for each game. The Tuesday match in the second division was a 3.30 kick off, as there were no floodlights. While this restricts the attendance, the league’s website shows similar crowds to the 1000 in the ground for my game on the previous Saturday. On a hot and sunny afternoon, I saw Dong Nai beat Quang Nam by three goals to two, in a really enjoyable game. The ground was fully enclosed with cover on one side only, and mainly concrete stands. The first division ground was similar in style, but much bigger in size. While Dong Nai would not hold 10,000 comfortably, Binh Duong frequently attract 20,000 to the Go Dau stadium. The figure for the previous Sunday against Da Nang (second in the league) had been 18,000 – but on a Wednesday, and with the game starting in heavy rain, my match was watched by only half that figure. Still the covered stand was crowded as the fans tried to avoid the worst of the weather. It took a long while for Binh Duong to assert their superiority over the visitors, with the opening goal coming from a penalty after 67 minutes. In the end Binh Duong were comfortable 2-0 winners, and since my trip, they have maintained form, so they will go into tomorrow’s final round of games already assured of the title. Good to see several hundred away fans in the ground, especially considering that by road or rail, the journey would have taken in excess of 24 hours!

It appears that local football is in quite a healthy state in Vietnam, despite the problems the league has had in recent years. Back in July, nine people, including a FIFA ranked referee were found guilty of fixing games in the 2005 season, with allegations suggesting games have been fixed since the current professional league started in 2001. However, with jail terms of up to seven years for this latest scandal, there now seems to be a feeling that the league is now clean. The results of the national team, in being the only one of four Asian cup hosts to reach the quarter finals is being seen as a success. The only remaining cloud on the horizon was that despite heavy security presence at both the games I saw (and no signs of trouble), there has again been incidents of crowd violence this season, although none as bad as when a linesmen was seriously injured by a rock thrown from the stands at Long An last season.

Singapore Slings

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

On my summer trip to Asia, I managed to see a number of matches that were not part of the Nations Cup, but were instead matches in the local competitions. More than half of these were in Singapore. Singapore had failed to qualify for the Asian Cup, and decided to carry on its league programme.

A general view of the South East Asia region is that it is chaotic. There is a habit of not organising much in advance and to accept what life throws at you. The only exceptions to these rules are when it comes to results – either elections (which are closely controlled by the government), or sports events (for which there are always illegal betting concerns trying to effect the results). To a great extent, Singapore is not like the rest of the region, and life is far more organised there. There are far more laws in this small island state as well; so for example – in the only country where you may feel safe to cross the road – jay-walking is illegal! When Singapore first became independent from British rule, it started out as part of Malaysia, but Singapore broke away from its larger neighbour after about two years. Naturally, with everything else under control, election results in Singapore are not left to chance, and the country is not immune from the spectre of betting scandals.

Both under British rule and afterwards, and even after Singapore had become a state in its own right, Singapore played in Malaysian football competitions – so while there was a Singaporean league, this was a minor competition. The more important contests were for the Malaysian League and Malaysia Cup, in which Singapore entered as a state, playing against the states of Malaysia (and incidentally, Brunei as well).

This broke down in 1994, which should have been one of the great seasons for Singapore. They won the league and then followed it up with a Malaysia Cup victory. In the final, they beat Pahang by 4-0 with Abbas Saad – a Lebanese born Australian international scoring a hat-trick. But soon afterwards, news of a betting scandal broke, the guilty parties came from both Malaysia and Singapore – over thirty players were arrested. On Singapore though, the feeling was that they were being unjustly blamed, even though it was a Singapore court that convicted Saad for his part (he was fined S$50,000) and FIFA banned him for two years. Singapore used this as an excuse to pull out of Malaysian competition and to promote their own league, which was re-launched as the S-League two years later.

Singapore is a highly populated country, around 4.5 million people on an island not a lot larger than the Isle of Wight. This requires serious housing projects to accommodate everyone. The result is a series of townships, all apparently out of the same mould – low rise apartment blocks fanning outwards from a central hub. The hub will have a shopping centre, and transport facilities, (a station on the MRT, plus local buses). Every one of these townships has an array of community facilities, such as schools, churches (these are the only things that are racially or religiously segregated in Singapore), and of course leisure facilities. This does tend to mean that almost all the leisure centres look the same at first glance. A stadium with the football pitch within a running track – a main stand running the full length of one side, while opposite, and also perhaps beyond the curves and behind the goals – a few rows of uncovered seats built on to a metal scaffold. The main stand provides the only cover, and about two thirds of the seats are bare concrete – with just a section for VIPs in the centre. (One of the differences is that at some grounds anyone appears to be allowed into the central seats, whereas others are limited to invites only – meaning that they stay empty!).

Since being launched in the aftermath of the 94 scandal, the Singapore League (or S-League, as the marketing team have named it), has provided the only outlet for professional football on the Island. It currently consists of 12 teams, each of which has its own stadium in one or another of the townships mentioned. Crowds are quoted as around 1500 to 2500 for most matches – but the reality is somewhat different when you arrive at the stadiums. Only around 400 paying spectators turn out for each game, the rest of the number being made up of allocated complimentary tickets issued to the league or club sponsors. Few of these are ever taken up. It says something for the administration of Singapore football, that with gate receipts barely enough to pay a single players wages, they can find enough sponsorship to run a professional league. Most of this appears to be the work of the Football Association of Singapore. Club budgets anyway are strictly controlled, and there is no scope for a club to raise its own money to try and buy better players. The teams play each other three times during a season, which runs from March until about November or December. There are always a few short breaks when the players are required for international tournaments, or during holiday periods. The entire of the Singapore national team plays within the league. Teams are allowed to recruit four foreigners – and most have the number allowed, with a fare mixture of Africans, Europeans and South Americans dotted around. The only foreign internationals appear to be a couple of members of the Thai National side..

While most of the complimentary tickets are never seen, I did manage to get one for one game. It was the wet season in Singapore, and this normally means a very humid day, followed by a storm at dusk, the storms normally last around two hours, but tend to come around the start time of matches. So at Wellington Woodlands, I arrived in a heavy shower of rain, and was unimpressed to find I would have to venture out into the weather to find the ticket booth. A food seller than said he had comp tickets, but I had to buy some food from him. I said I did not want the food, but would pay the S$5 that a ticket would normally cost. This was turned down – apparently against the rules – so instead I had to buy the food and get a free ticket – the food cost S$3.50.

The big advantage for the groundhopping traveller is the league schedule – never more than two matches on a day (always evening kick-offs), and generally five or six fixtures dates per week. There are disadvantages, though; while a groundhopper may love to travel to different places, the point is lost when all the places look the same, and all the stadia are almost identical. The other disadvantage is the football is of a uniform quality – which is poor. Now, while I do not really mind watching a relatively low quality of football – I see a lot of low level non-League after all – and I believe that the commitment makes for a reasonable level of entertainment, even without the quality – in Singapore, there is a general lack of entertainment. I would say that only two of the six games I saw on this tour were worth the entrance money!

As I have said, Singapore consists of a series of townships, many with stadiums, and the clubs use these stadiums. However, only half of the clubs have a name which implies they are from these townships – and one of these (Geylang) do not play in the area they take their name from. Three more clubs belong to Singapore institutions – Singapore Armed Forces FC speaks for itself. Home United represents various departments concerned with home security –such as the Police and the Customs service, while the Young Lions is supposedly the national U-23 team. None of these trio are what they seem though – some national U-23 players play for other teams, while the Young Lions still includes its allocation of foreigners. The Armed Forces and Home teams also include foreigners, and are just professional football teams, although one or two of the Armed Forces players may be doing their national service. The final three teams are even more obscure – two have club names – but the clubs concerned are in China and Japan, the third is called Korean Super Reds. At least these have a clear provenance; each is made up with mainly young players, and these teams have 100% foreigners – all coming from the country of the teams origin. The idea has been running in Singapore for some time, although it does not appear very successful. All the clubs have an ‘official supporters club’, mainly youngsters who wear the colours and bang a drum during the match. Korean Super-Reds have only managed to recruit a lone drummer. There is little sign that a grounding in the Singapore league is enough to secure a professional contract back home, and the only members of these teams known to have stayed in professional football when changing clubs are still in Singapore.

Oddly, it is not just the clubs that have foreign players in Singapore – the national team has taken some of the on as well. The various football authorities are quite concerned that International football could be compromised by a number of players changing their nationality and then becoming members of the national teams. They say it is OK if players change nationalities for other reasons, and then become national players, but not if the player concerned changes only for football reasons. The test is whether a player stays in his adopted country after his football career is over, but by then it is too late to rule on his eligibility. The habit is becoming widespread, especially in Asia, with a notable example being Qatar’s Uruguayan striker, Sebastian Quintana (he scored all his country’s goals in the tournament). The Singapore team includes an Englishman who changed nationality only after marrying a local girl, but also includes a number of players who came to the country first of all as foreign players in the league, and then only changed nationality when included in an FAS scheme. The scheme is required because players wages are firmly regulated and foreigners get paid more than locals, and basically gives those who change nationality the advantages they would have as foreigners (free of subsidised housing and more money). Personally, I think this will have a limited effect on the national team, as the players concerned still play in the Singapore league – but while they were not good enough to reach the Asian cup finals, the policy did pay off in last winters South East Asian Cup, which Singapore won.

So to finish, a summary of my games in Singapore, the first of which saw Korean Super Reds playing Tampines Rovers. The Koreans are rock bottom of the table, but still gave a good account of themselves against one of the leaders. The Yishun stadium is a very typical as described already. Generally, the game was never over exciting, and we had to wait for the last ten minutes before we had any goals – Tampines took the lead with just 8 minutes to go, but Super Reds got a penalty in the 89th minute. Jeon Hyojoon hot the post with this, but the ball was passed back into the area, for Hyojoon to eventually score! This match was played on the Tuesday when I was between Ho Chi Minh City and Palembang. Returning a week later, it was cup week. The Singapore Cup involves all 12 of the league teams, plus four invited foreign clubs – one from Cambodia, one from Brunei and two from Thailand. All matches, though are played in Singapore, and only Bangkok University took foreign participation into the second round. Before seeing them, though I went to see the Armed Forces at Choa Chu Kang. This ground is not quite typical, the main stand being a little larger, and the rest of the ground being out of bounds, with no more seats. It was a second leg tie, with the Armed Forces already 4-2 up, but we had a really fun time, right from an opening penalty which the Gombak keeper saved, then saved another shot from the rebound, only to concede to the third shot. Both sides threw everything forward throughout, and on a wet surface, most went in. The final score was 5-3 (9-5 on aggregated). Two of Gombak’s goals were scored by Thersdek Chaiman, who had played in the Asian cup for Thailand. The following day (a Tuesday), I saw Bangkok University play Balestier Khalsa on Balestier’s Tao Payoh ground (one of the typical ones). Balestier play a direct style with one tactic only – pass to the foreigners. Their Japanese striker put them 1-0 up, but they were undone by the wing play of the visitors, (it seems to me that few Singapore teams use their wingers much). By coincidence, one of the University wingers was also Japanese, and he scored the first two goals in a 3-1 win. I also saw they second leg, played on Friday at Jelan Besar. Every Friday, there is a game televised and this always takes place at the Jelan Besar ground, which belongs to the FA of Singapore. The ground is also the home of Young Lions in the league. This stadium has no track, with stands square along both sides, but nothing behind the goals. It also boasts an artificial pitch. Despite the University dominating the second game as well, they went down 1-0 – not enough to stop them reaching the semi-final. The following day I was off to Jakarta for the Asian Cup final, but on Monday I was back in Singapore for two more days of league action. The Woodlands Stadium, (Woodlands Wellington) and the Bedok Stadium (Geylang United) are both typical, although Bedok has seating inside the track behind the goals, and some of the support also makes use of a grass bank behind the open seating. Both games were dull, with Woodlands drawing 1-1 against Sengkang Punggol, while Geylang and Balestier Khalsa drew without troubling the scorer. This is a pity for Geylang, who have more support than most other teams, and support that appears to be more committed to their team as well. While most teams in the league have been recently manufactured, Geylang were one of the mainstays of the amateur leagues that preceded the S-League. One could only feel that such support deserves a better team.

World Cup Qualification – Has the AFC dropped the Ball?

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

The AFC today announced the long and tortuous route to South Africa, for their potential five qualifying teams. A team that comes through the eventual play-off may have played 22 games to get there, and there are 24 international dates named. Some of these dates are not on the international calendar, and so those teams with players outwith Asia may well have difficulty in getting key players released for crucial games.

With only four certain and one potential place between 43 contenders, the format for the World Cup qualification games in Asia is always difficult to work out, but the way the AFC have done it makes little sense. I believe the AFC have failed to talk with their clubs about the possibilities, and see what they actually want. It is true to say that there are some nations in the region that will be rather glad that they will fall by the wayside after just one or two knock out games – but the AFC are removing 23 out of 43 in this way. The trouble is that those 23 teams will get little chance to test and develop their team in action. If teams missing out closely follow the AFC’s current ranking list, then the likes of Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore will miss out.

It is part of the problem in Asia, that if the nations concerned were asked whether they wanted to be in group matches, or just knock out – then many of those nations who know they have no hope, and do not want to play a long series of expensive fixtures may not tell the truth. Still, I think it is nearer 30 clubs, rather than the current 20 that would like to reach this stage. However, it is very difficult to work out ways of cutting down from this sort of number to the four places and one play-off place required. Of course, I have long thought this could be made simpler if instead of having a play-off against an Oceania contender, the combination could be made at an earlier stage. If 29 Asian and one Oceanian team went into the group stage, then the African system could be followed with five groups, and the champion of each going through. With no need for the two group stage process, this method would allow a more comfortable schedule of ten group games each.

However, bring the Oceanian contender into the group stage is not on the agenda for this tournament. Still 30 teams seems a better number for the group stage than the 20 proposed. If they were arranged in six groups of five, then each team would play eight matches over ten match dates. The six group winners would then be arranged in two groups of just three teams, playing just four matches (6 match dates) – and with the winners and runners-up of each group going through – only the last placed teams would have to go through the final play-off rounds – which would be unchanged from the current (inevitable, but unsatisfactory) arrangement.

Creating a situation where teams can avoid some of the match dates is important. There are matches scheduled for February in both 2008 and 2009, and a lot of matches in June of both years. With February dates being highly unsuitable in the central Asian republics, and June being rather uncomfortable in the Arabian Gulf, the schedule needs some slack.

And don’t forget, the next AFC Championship has been arranged for January 2011, just seven months after the World Cup. Thanks to the AFC’s complicated devices, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are already qualified, as are hosts Qatar. The winners of the next two AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and 2010 are also qualified. But there are still going to have to be qualification matches to decide the remaining ten teams in contention. At a minimum, 20 teams should be in contention and each team should face at least a six game programme. Any sensible arrangement will involve an overlap between qualification for World Cup 2010, and AFC Championships 2011 – has the AFC worked this out? Have they decided who are in the Challenge Cup competitions? Are teams still allowed to play in both?

Winners and Losers

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

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

The Favourites.

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

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

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

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

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

Winners – none
Big Sore Losers – Australia.

The Hosts

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

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

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

The Arabs

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

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

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

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

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

The Others

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

Winner – Uzbekistan
Loser – China.

The AFC

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

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

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

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

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

Single Goal takes the Cup to Iraq.

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Preview: Low scoring match could favour Iraq.

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penalties again decisive – Iraq reach the final

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koreans make Iran pay penalty for keeper switch

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iraq in the comfort zone.

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia turn on the Style

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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