After the group games had finished, I headed out of Sri Lanka for three days on the Maldives. That is another story, and I will be writing a new blog to cover that.
In the blogs on Sri Lanka, I have described some of the frustrations and difficulties in the country. It is true that there are too many people trying to feed off too few tourists, and so the attentions of the touts is a problem, and it is true that the ever present security in the city can present the impression that there is still an ever present threat to security but while there are many checks, they are generally cursory, and the soldiers are very polite about telling you where you are allowed to, (or not allowed to) take photographs. Overall, it is hard to name a country where the locals are friendlier than they are Sri Lanka.
Friendly, the locals may be but enthused by the AFC Challenge Cup they were not. The competition was billed as the biggest football event ever in Sri Lanka but the bills were not placed where people could see them. This is the third AFC Challenge Cup, with the tournament heading South through the Indian sub-continent each time. The first tournament was played in Bangladesh in front of some quite good attendances. The second, in India was met with poor crowds in Hyderabad, but was somewhat redeemed when heavy rain forced the final to be switched to New Delhi, where 10,000 watched the home side win the tournament. This time, with no hosts involved, it will be a surprise if the final crowds reach the four figure mark.
This is a pity, as the final match could well deserve a much bigger audience. I was disappointed with North Korea in their opening game, feeling that by playing a youthful side rather than the full World Cup squad, they might be damaging their chances of using the occasion to qualify for next year’s Asian Cup finals. Indeed, in the first game they struggled to make an impact against Turkmenistan, but in the second game the opened up and increased in confidence as they put four goals past Kyrgyzstan. In the third group game, they easily beat India, and in the semi-final put five past Myanmar. Turkmenistan, on the other hand have played all the games I saw in the same way as the opening match. At times dour, and always more than willing to bend a rule or waste more than a little time, they have made a functional route to the final. After the opening draw with the Koreans, both India and Kyrgyzstan were beaten in single goal games. Neither was particularly pretty, and Kyrgyzstan had more than one opportunity to remove them from the contest. The surprise in the semi-final, when they played Tajikistan was they managed to score more than a single goal.
Hence when they meet in the final, neither Turkmenistan, nor North Korea will have conceded a goal since they played each other in their first match. The title will depend on whether or not Turkmenistan can resist the more inventive and fluid North Korean side. If they can, then I would think they could eventually find a chance of their own. North Korea will start as favourites for the match, and I am sure they can win the game if they score early. The longer the match can go on scoreless, they better the chances of Turkmenistan will be. It will be a good test of Korean stamina if the game goes into extra time.
Before the main event, Tajikistan will play Myanmar for third place. They met in the final game in their group, with Myanmar practically guaranteed a place in the semi-finals before the game started. As the scores came through from the other game, and it became clear nothing could stop Myanmar going through, they did not appear to try to head to stop Tajikistan. The result was a 3-0 win for the central Asian side. Although Myanmar will be trying harder, I believe that Tajikistan will again be too much for them. This match does have an importance if the AFC keep to their recent record of giving the top three sides exemption to the next edition of the contest.
What lessons have been learnt from this tournament? The AFC need to realise that the people will not come just because you put on a tournament. They need to add a bit of a show, a bit of razzamatazz to get the locals interested. Especially if the tournament is to be staged in the territory of another sport. For this competition, there was so little advanced publicity that even the tourist office at the airport claimed definitively that there was no football tournament being played in the country. The local press reported on Sri Lankan games only, and even then only briefly. The second stadium used was a very late choice, and not really up to the job. Clearly they did not realise that the matches there would attract the few football tourists here, and that there would be a press presence, even if it was limited to the Press Association man hired by the AFC themselves. Playing in February, (the last two tournaments were in April) means that half the teams come in from freezing conditions having not started their regular seasons. Having said this, these teams (from Central Asia and Korea), turned out to be better organised than those from further south. It did not help the cause of India that they only brought along their under-23 team. Having allowed this, the AFC allowed the devaluation of the competition. The Sri Lankan side was not technically under strength, but suffered from the decision of the local association after failings in other competitions to put all their most experienced players out to grass, and bring in less experienced youngsters in their place. For both India and Sri Lanka this meant they had a team that could not compete, although in Sri Lanka’s case, it is unlikely that any XI they could put out would have been competitive.
In the future, the AFC should make sure that the full teams are sent out to play, but they also need to put their own house in order. The AFC can find sponsors for its signature events, the Asian Cup and Champions League; they need to persuade some of these to pay a little attention to their other competitions. They need to work with the local organising committees to see that not only the main event is organised, but also that the event gets into the spotlight in the host country.