A minor twitter storm kicked up last week when it dawned on many watchers of the AFC Asian Cup on British Eurosport 2 that just as a gradually warming-up tournament was starting to steam up, the channel’s coverage was evaporating. The service British Eurosport have provided over recent years to international football tournament junkies such as myself has been lauded in these pages before. But even before considering the demerits of pundit Mark Bright, I felt let down by their scheduling of this competition.
Asia being Asia, the games were never going to tie in with a Western European body clock, especially with tournament hosts Australia being Asia on Planet Football. Games have kicked off at seven and nine o’clock each morning – and impressively specifically so. But Eurosport’s highlights packages were scheduled at 4 and 5.30 in the morning, times when the only advertising is for other Eurosport programmes and services. Highlights of two of the key final group matches were scheduled at 11.30am and 12.15pm. But the conclusions of Groups A and B were not covered at all. And two of the quarter-finals are, at the time of typing, similarly absent from the schedules – with 60 minutes of advert-pocked, clumsily-edited highlights covering the other two.
That the competition was nudged off its early morning slot by wall-to-wall Aussie Open tennis on is understandable. Tennis is one of Eurosport’s big deals and the year’s first grand slam tournament is a big deal within that big deal. But a glance at their schedules for next week suggests room for more of one of football’s big deals, even with their extensive African Cup of Nations coverage. The latter tournament is a bigger deal in Britain, and only any deal at all, because of the EPL players involved. While Yaya Toure will be missed as he joins Cote D’Ivoire until their inevitable disappointing quarter-final exit, it seems as if few outside Swindon, missing Iraq’s Yaser Kasim and Australia’s Massimo Luongo, have been bemoaning the Asia Cup’s English mid-season scheduling. And even though Swansea City have lost Ki Sung-Yueng to South Korea’s squad, the bigger deal has been team-mate Wilfried Bony’s departure… and not only because when he does come back it will likely be to Manchester City.
The average FIFA ranking of the 16 Asian finalists is considerably lower than for the African finalists. And this is only partly due to the presence in of North Korea and Palestine, who qualified as winners of the Asia Challenge Cup for the continent’s “emerging” (i.e. crap) teams in 2012 (ludicrously) and 2014 respectively. This resembles fifth and sixth seeds in Euro 2016 groups (e.g. Azerbaijan and Luxembourg) playing off for a place in France…and not “the Europa League winners qualifying for the Champions League,” one of the 95% of Bright’s comments which crumble before the merest intellectual scrutiny. And, of course, FIFA’s rankings are irretrievable tosh. This was especially evident during 93rd-ranked Oman’s four-nil spanking by Australia, ranked ONE HUNDRED.
But none of this justifies the shabby, semi-dismissive treatment of the Asian Cup by British Eurosport and the wholly-dismissive attitude of much of the rest of the UK’s broadcast media. I’m not about to claim this tournament as a footballing classic. My evaluation comes with the standard health warning of how easily-pleased I can be by such events. The odds against the final being a repeat of Japan’s meeting with Australia in the last competition in Qatar in 2011 were short until the Socceroos loused up their final group game (certainly shorter than those against Qatar providing a credible host nation’s challenge in the 2022 World Cup). And their potential semi-final meet could prove conclusive and a lot closer than it might have been had the Aussies been able to play it in Sydney’s 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia rather than the 33,000-capacity Newcastle Stadium, 100 miles up the New South Wales coast.
Nonetheless there has been plenty to interest, amuse and entertain over this past week. And the tournament has also answered a much-asked football question: “what’s Ray Wilkins doing these days?”…even if the opening performance of the Wilkins-managed Jordan team left some still wondering. In Group A, Australia were wearing the mantle of host nation well, until South Korea came along. Apart from Kuwait taking an early lead against them and a great save by Nat Ryan preventing Oman repeating the feat, the Aussies were as overpowering in those games as they must often have felt when brushing aside Oceanic opposition. But South Korea’s almost Mourinho-esque gameplan worked against inferior and superior opposition. Manager Uli Stielike, with a distractingly French-sounding German accent, has had proverbial kittens while his side have struggled to hold onto well-earned one-nil interval leads against teams Australia flicked away like dust off a cuff. But repeating the trick against the hosts seemed less fraught.
Japan were in full control of Group D. They were unlucky not to score more than seven goals – star man Keisuke Honda could make a living doing crossbar challenges in retirement if TV punditry isn’t his thing. And they rarely looked like conceding, albeit against relatively uncreative opponents. Jordan may have outscored Japan against the hapless Palestinians, thanks to four goals from Hamza Al Dardour, whose celebratory leap of one goal left him in a heap after the adrenalin rush of scoring conceded to the pain from shinning the post in doing so. But Dardour was no Luis Suarez…hell, he was no Frank Stapleton, whose badly sunburnt features graced the Jordanian dug-out behind Wilkins’ badly-tanned and circular ones.
Iraq haven’t, yet, promoted enough of their dynamic 2013 World Under-20s Cup semi-finalists to make any lasting impression, although their quarter-final could change that (see below). Palestine, meanwhile, were hopeless, apart from an increasingly frustrated but talented Ashraf Nu’man. References to “catastrophe for Palestine” as they fluffed defensive lines probably lacked perspective. But references to them as an “emerging football nation” will have appealed to some political sensibilities, even if they probably didn’t enhance Eurosport International’s viewing figures in Tel Aviv.
Group C was just about the most entertaining, despite the anonymous mediocrity of Bahrain and “in-form” Qatar completely mislaying that form somewhere on the journey from Qatar to Melbourne. Iran won it with Reza Ghoochannejhad’s late strike against the United Arab Emirates – meaning the UAE now face Japan in potentially the most stylish match of the quarter-finals/whole tournament, while Iran face, ulp, Iraq in potentially the most politically-charged match of the quarter-finals/whole tournament. The atmosphere will certainly be charged by Iran’s huge, fanatical support. The advice emblazoned on some t-shirts, “Keep calm and support Iran,” has been studiously ignored and Iran’s support has been as wild as Ashkan Dejageh’s eyes, with the occasion benefitting enormously.
The UAE’s Omar Abdulrahman has been the stand-out player for far more than his David Luiz/Sideshow Bob attitudes to both hairstyles and defensive responsibilities. And he has combined semi-telepathically with Ali Makbhout, who emerged from Eurosport’s commentary position as Scotland’s lost striker “Ally McBoot.” Group B looked an early “Group of Death” candidate after Uzbekistan’s one-nil win over an almost entirely ambitionless North Korea. But it eventually challenged Group C for entertainment. The tournament’s “aww bless” moment was China goalkeeper Wang Dalei asking 12-year-old ball-boy Stephan White which way to dive for Saudi Arabia’s penalty before saving Naif Hazazi’s spot-kick. In truth, Hazazi’s kick was weak and relatively central but the legend is established and, hey, why not?
China set up their unexpected group victory by coming from behind to beat the Uzbeks who looked the group’s best team for long periods but nearly slept-walked out of the tournament. The Saudis were as expansive against China as Uzbekistan were cagey. But the Uzbeks, and star man Sardor Rashidov in particular, found their touch just in time to snatch victory from the jaws of a draw which would have sent the Saudis through. The tournament awaits its first goalless draw (or draw of any kind) and, despite ten one-nils in 24 games, its first real stinker. And one can imagine more powerful and mobile teams from the concurrent African continental competition running lanes through most of the defences on show.
The goal of the tournament so far provided as much incident as some entire matches in duller tournaments. Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al Dawsari twinkle-toed round three North Korean defenders before shooting. Korean defender Yon-Jick Lee tried to catch the ball on the line and missed, only for the ball to strike the bar and hit his arm on the way back. Intentional or not, Lee saw red, before Nawaf Al Abid’s spot-kick was pushed onto one post by Korean keeper Ri Myong-Guk, rolled along the line, hit the other post and was eventually netted by Al Abid sliding in on the rebound. More fun than a 25-yard screamer and even than UAE’s 13th-second goal (count ‘em) against Bahrain.
When British Eurosport isn’t bumping the tournament to squeeze in freestyle-falling-down-a-snowy-hillock in Switzerland or a tennis match between two players who hadn’t heard of themselves either, their coverage has been welcome, Bright excluded, especially compared to the live streams I’ve watched (Iran v Bahrain in Farsi) and the Australian commentaries on the official competition website. Matt Jackson sounds a little too much like Steve Claridge when he gets excited. But he has a nice line in healthy cynicism and dry humour. It may be the ungodly hours but even Leroy Rosenior hasn’t grated too much. And Stewart Robson and Russell Osman continue to show their experience at the far from easy task of commentating on TV pictures alone. Osman certainly hasn’t let his relegation to Britain’s second most well-known Osman (behind the ubiquitous Richard) affect his work.
But, dear me, Mark Bright. I’ve done a whole article on his inadequacies as a pundit, so I’ll not detain you long here. His least annoying trait is his extraneous, unspellable noises when something appears about to happen on the pitch. Real words cause the psychological damage to listeners. Still, he warns of the analytical calamities to come with his stock opening, “I must say,” to things he really mustn’t say at all. And this at least displays a sense of unintended irony, as when he bemoans strikers taking “the wrong option,” which he so often does when choosing between saying nothing sensible or nothing at all.
A fascinating quarter-final line-up awaits. Will South Korea adapt their nerve-shredding one-nil win template? Will Iran/Iraq be as explosive as recent political history promises/threatens? And will Eurosport commentators produce too many inappropriate war terminology like… erm… “explosive?” Will the world’s largest nation beat the host nation and potentially set up a geo-politically tense semi-final against Japan? Will the UAE and Japan produce 1000 passes between them? And, perhaps most importantly, will the tennis/luge/freestyle ski-ing allow British Eurosport to show all, some or any of it?
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