There could have been 100 goals in the 2011 Asian Cup tournament, if North Korea and the United Arab Emirates had been a bit less shi…ocking. And as there were nearly three goals-per-game and the best and most entertaining team won, this tournament can be filed in the success column – whatever Alex Ferguson may think of “this Asia Cup thing.” Japan were undoubtedly the best and most entertaining team. They managed the most goals too, despite Uzbekistan’s ‘best’ efforts to give Australia the honour in a semi-final collapse so complete that bookies wouldn’t dare rig it.
The ‘Blue Samurai’s’ opening match against Jordan turned out to be their ‘Spain v Switzerland’ moment. Their goalkeeper, Eiji Kawashima, went from Robert Green to Lev Yashin during his suspension for GBH on Syria’s Sanharib Malki in the group stages. And Yasuhito Endo produced the best performance in an international tournament from somebody looking like a cold, wet schoolboy in bedraggled kit wishing he was doing maths homework instead. Japan were involved in most of the best matches as well, with the Qatar triumph just edging the Syria and South Korean games. But on the flipside, they were lucky not to lose to Jordan – who knows what effect that would have had on their tournament? And they had the most over-rated player in Keisuke Honda who at times wasn’t even good enough to flatter to deceive. He was the tournament’s ‘most valuable player’ – but valuable to whom, and for what, wasn’t clear from where I was watching.
And what a winning goal in the final, Tadanari Lee’s photogenic left-foot volley taking the cup to Japan for the fourth time. He could have controlled the ball and side-footed it casually past a horribly-exposed Marc Schwarzer in the Aussie goal. But he chose the waist-high first-timer, and a star was born. “Did he mishit that, shin it?” pondered Russell Osman on Eurosport commentary. “Ooooh,” he decided, after the super slo-mo showed that, no, he didn’t mishit it at all. Yet the Aussies should have won and probably would have done if some of their best chances hadn’t fallen to left-back David Carney and their apparent token A-Leaguer, Robbie Cruze. Cruze would have been likened rather more often to phonetic namesake Penelope if the sexist police weren’t on full patrol after certain SKY TV-based misdemeanours. Yet he was only on the pitch a matter of seconds – with commentators caught in mid-slag-off – before nearly heading Australia in front in extra-time, only denied by the new, improved Kawashima.
Kawashima also denied the perennially exasperated Harry Kewell, who managed to avoid injury throughout the tournament yet was still substituted in the final, despite the clear prospect of a penalty shoot-out at the time of his departure. Still, most true-blue Englishmen would, I’m sure, see that as the best outcome of a final with Australia, the Socceroos thoroughly deserving to win…and losing.
The Japan/Korea rivalry is on a different level entirely. And beyond the basics, it is a subject about which I know too little to offer an opinion. In which case, I won’t (hey, there’s a thought for some). So when I saw South Korean Ki-Sung Yueng scratch his left cheek after scoring from the spot in the semi-final, I just wondered why he hadn’t washed that side of his face. Little did I know that it was a gesture of defiance against racist football fans in Scotland – who presumably don’t wash the left side of their faces either. Yueng was, you suspect, over-estimating the British Eurosport 2 viewing figures among Scottish racists. Because of course his ‘celebration’ wasn’t, as some over-sensitive types might have suggested, a monkey impression aimed at the Japanese. The South Korean football authorities said it wasn’t, anyway. And why would Yueng waste a close-up, seconds after scoring against JAPAN in front of a bank of JAPANESE fans to abuse the Japanese nation, when there are racist St Johnstone fans to put in their place? In pure footballing terms, the semi-final round was probably the best, even if Uzbekistan against Australia eventually became a comedy classic.
The first-half of Japan against South Korea resembled La Liga’s pacy technique. And certain English football hearts will have been warmed by South Korea’s early and late success with the “knock it to the big lad up front” tactic, even if the twenty minutes where manager Cho Kwang-Rae reverted to the tricky, on-the-ground stuff cost them the initiative and, nearly, the match. Koreans might be forgiven for thinking that Japan, having had their best spells of the tournament playing with ten men, probably didn’t need twelve or thirteen in extra-time, with referee and assistant believing obstruction just outside the area to be a penalty – wrong on only two counts. Cho called the decision ‘strange.’ Now, there’s inscrutable. If Cho is contemplating a coaching future, he’ll probably have “practice penalties” written in indelible ink somewhere visible, as his team produced the worst set of shoot-out kicks since Barcelona’s in the 1986 European Cup Final. But at least their tournament legacy was an entertaining bronze-medal match performance and victory.
Uzbekistan booked their place in that match so comprehensively that you had to wonder what manager Vadim Abramov said at half-time. “Now don’t forget, lads, if they get a third, one of you get sent off and the rest of you give up.” 62% possession, goalkeeper Timur Juraev their man-of-the-match and still they lost 6-0. An irritated Russell Osman said before kick-off that, yes, Australia “may be the favourites.” But even he, Uzbekistan’s prime cheerleader throughout, was reduced to a whimper by the time even ‘Penelope’ Kruze got on the scoresheet. Osman’s protestations that Andrew Johnson’s stunt double, Aleksandr Geynrikh, would have made a difference fell on deaf ears. And for once, his research was lacking, as he wondered incessantly why Geynrikh wasn’t playing when reports suggested that he hadn’t recovered from his quarter-final injury and hadn’t trained in the lead-up to the semi.
Mind you, Geynrikh was a star of the bronze medal match, once the Uzbeks decided that consecutive 6-0 larrupings weren’t going to get them a hero’s welcome back in Tashkent, or the Premier League contracts so many of them reportedly wanted (Osman: “Doesn’t everybody?”). South Korea were Barcelona look-alikes until half-time, or at least were made to look that way. Uzbek centre-half Odil Ahmedov rightly received plaudits for his incisive forays forward during the competition. “You forget he’s a centre-back,” noted both Osman and Stuart Robson. Unfortunately, so did Ahmedov for the Koreans first goal. Their second could have been Xavi-to-Iniesta-to-Messi/Pedro/Villa. And Ji Dong Won went all Gerard Pique for the third.
But Osman’s mate Geynrikh pulled one back with a twice-taken penalty – his first effort, a ‘Panninka’ chip down the middle, was disallowed as at least one encroaching Uzbek nearly reached the net before the ball. And after that South Korea were more Barnsley than Barca. Geynrikh’s second was pure class. And the exhausted Koreans might not have hung on if the Uzbeks sudden surge of adventure hadn’t disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The win gave South Korea automatic qualification for the 2015 event, a prize which made the bronze-medal match a genuinely competitive one – in theory and in practice. A good idea, then…so we’ll never see it again.
For a proper overview of the tournament, it is perhaps best to look elsewhere. There’s only so much you can glean from British Eurosport 2’s intermittent live coverage and freakily-edited highlights (a screen-filling fast-forward button, some speeded up sound effects, and hey presto, another twenty minutes on the clock). But what there was to glean was mostly good. The crowds mostly weren’t. Most of the 2022 World Cup stadia will be bigger than those used here but even these weren’t filled, with an average crowd of 12,500 and 3,000 crowds littering the group stages. And stories are still emerging of a ticketing cock-up which kept some fans with tickets for the final unable to get into a far-from-full stadium.
But, given the FIFA rankings the teams carried into the tournament, there was a refreshing quality about much of the play. Some observers have tried to suggest that the officiating was terrible. But, Japan v Syria aside, there were no more obvious mistakes than you’d get in any continental tournament…or even the World Cup itself, as Mark van Bommel could readily testify. And Eurosport’s coverage was uniformly good. Years of experience of watching various worldwide underage and club competitions has paid off. Their commentators have an in-depth knowledge which appears to be expressly forbidden by the BBC charter and the various ITV franchise agreements. And while it remains impossible to disguise the fact that they are commentating from TV pictures, they have now seen enough TV pictures to know their subjects in a way that Keown, Drury, Shearer etc will always find beyond them.
Eurosport’s Asian Champions League coverage proved particularly useful to the commentators and, in turn, informative to the viewer – a transfer which it is not always easy to make. You certainly couldn’t imagine any of them admitting “I don’t know much” about any leading qualifiers, as Clive Tyldesley did about Chile at last year’s World Cup. To the Eurosport team, including friend of this column Tim Capel, a proverbial pat on the back. To host broadcaster, Al-Kass, a cowpat, particularly when pictures from Australia’s semi-final disintegrated into tiny pieces, only to reintegrate in a different time zone to those the commentators were watching. There was so long between the audio and video of Harry Kewell’s goal that you could have put an on-line bet on it happening.
The cause of video technology got a boost from the ability to replay certain instances before the next action started. This was also true of last year’s World Cup coverage, where it was often clear whether a corner or a goalkick should have been awarded before said restart. Blatter can’t hold out much longer… which was rather how he looked, sat uncomfortably in an over-sized throne watching the final. The officials got one crucial goalline decision right in the final but it would still have been nice to see Joseph B squirming on his throne before this was confirmed by the TV replays in the stadium.
The “heat maps”, though, have got to go. Expensive technology telling us through the medium of body heat, where players were on the pitch over the game. And, guess what? Defenders tended to be at the back, forwards up front…and Saudi Arabia’s hopeless keeper Waleed Abdullah off the map entirely. “They were first used in Euro ’96,” noted Eurosport’s Tim Caple, “and they were pointless then.” Which needs no further comment. All-in-all though, a good two weeks, with Australia in 2015 something to eagerly await. Even Ferguson might have enjoyed it.