To be absolutely honest, I ended up not watching too much of the Asian Cup. The bits and pieces that I did see, however, confirmed the following: that Australia aren’t half as good as they think they are are, that Japan and South Korea have both singularly failed to capitalise on their relative success at the 2002 World Cup, and that Iraq might, if they can prevent themselves from being used like a political football and develop further as a team, just about be good enough to turn themselves into something approaching a world class team.
The final, against Saudi Arabia, was about one-sided as a 1-0 win could be. They completely dominated both halves of the match, having numerous chances to score before they finally did (thanks in no small part by some fairly horrendous goalkeeping by Saudi Arabia’s Al Mousailem, who completely misjudged a cross allowing Younis Mahmoud to score from close range). On the pitch, they were simply the best team in the tournament. They beat Australia in the qualifying stages and South Korea on penalty kicks in the semi-finals, on top of playing an experienced Saudi Arabian team in the final itself. They can’t have been deemed to have had an easy ride to trophy.
Supporters of the Iraqi national football team have never had much to celebrate. The team’s mistreatment at the hands of Uday Hussein has been much reported elsewhere (even after they qualified, against all odds, for the 1986 World Cup Finals). The shoots of recovery in the post-Saddam era, however, had been on display at the 2004 Olympics in Greece when they beat Paraguay and Australia before narrowly losing out on the Bronze medal through losing to Italy in the semi-final. Perhaps it should be less of a surprise to us that a team whose under-23s nearly won a medal three years ago should have it in them to win the Asian Cup.
In a country currently still riven by ethnic tensions brought to the surface by the American “liberation” of 2003, the scenes of united jubilation were surprising and pleasing to see. The team contained members of the Sunni and Shi’a sects, along with Kurdish and Turkoman players. It is almost certainly too much to hope that the violence will cease for long (indeed, a bomb in Baghdad yesterday killed six people and four people were reported dead in the post-match chaos), but the hope will be that this might just play a small part in building a more peaceful future there. The jury’s out for the moment, though.
Also intriguing is the possible line-up for the 2009 Confederations Cup, to be held in South Africa. This competition, you may recall, pitches the winners of each of the FIFA confederations against each other in a warm-up for the World Cup finals. With Iraq now having qualified for this as the Asian champions and the USA having qualified from CONCACAF, the possibility of the two teams meeting there looms on the horizon. Well, it would certainly give the South African security forces a proper warm-up for the World Cup.
With that, the summer is over. The Scottish League starts this Saturday, and the Premier League and the Football League and Blue Square Premier (that’s the Conference, in English) start a week later. We have much to look forward to. You just need to know where to look.