You suspect that African Cup of Nations Cote D’Ivoire would win a meaningful match on neutral territory against AFC Asian Cup winners Australia – a match which screams to be organised by whoever gives us internationals such as Argentina v Croatia at the Boleyn Ground.
However, no amount of revisionism from British Eurosport’s Stewart Robson, who labelled the AFCON “a fairly good tournament” can mask the superior quality of footballing entertainment served up in the Asian event.
After years of falling below expectations, Cote D’Ivoire finally regained their continental title. The focus should have been more on Ghana’s 33-year-and-counting wait for one; I’m pretty sure there’s even a song about that which could be modified for the purpose.
But, as ever, personalities dominated the narrative. Thus Yaya Toure’s years of hurt (and Didier Drogba’s before him) were the story. And we were informed after their insanely tense penalty shoot-out victory that Cote D’Ivoire had won their first African title “without Didier Drogba,” which will have been news to the 1992 champions, for whom a 13-year-old Drogba certainly didn’t play.
The ghastliness of the final, and the length of the penalty shoot-out, wasn’t news to seasoned AFCON watchers and statistical know-it-alls. Nigeria’s 1-0 win over Burkina Faso in 2013 was a goal-fest after two goals in the previous five finals. And there were no goals in Cote D’Ivoire’s three finals, including the 1992 penalty shoot-out win, 11-10, against…Ghana. Yet this inevitability didn’t reach Wayne Boyce and Robson on British Eurosport, who dutifully predicted “a cracking match” until the on-field evidence became overpowering.
In fairness, both finalists were convincing enough semi-final winners to suggest that “a cracking match” was possible. The first…and only…glimpse of the “real” Yaya Toure was his thunderbolt’s thunderbolt of a strike to put his side one-up against the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC keeper Robert Kidiaba only had to move his hands an inch, as ITV4’s Quintin Fortune noted disapprovingly. But, as everyone else on earth noted, Kidiaba might have joined the ball in the net had he done so.
Dieumerci Mbokani drew DRC level from the penalty spot. But by the time a visibly dischuffed Mbokani was replaced early in the second half, DRC were looking beaten. They were over-reliant on Mbokani and Yannick Bolasie. And neither hit peak form
Gifted a goal before half-time, which Wilfried Bony nonetheless set up like the £24m man he now is, Cote D’Ivoire looked “the part” in the second half, even if Kanon and Bailly defended rather like the music hall act their names suggest.
Equatorial Guinea certainly had a comprehensive take on sore losing, treating Ghanaian players, officials and supporters to plentiful supplies of water bottles as their final hopes began dissolving in three late first-half minutes.
It was a situation to follow on Twitter not the telly, as the inadequacies of studio-based coverage were cruelly exposed by off-camera events. Viewers could hear a helicopter during what should have been the closing minutes. But the sight of Ghana’s entire support behind the by-line rather than in their seats needed explaining. Indeed, it took ages to identify the supporters forming an admirably orderly queue as Ghanaian.
On the pitch, the Equato-Guineans were finally exposed as the also-rans they should have been. And, thanks to their hopefully unsolicited quarter-final luck against Tunisia and perma-diving forward Iban Salvador, they maintained a rare unpopularity for underdogs as they finally entered plucky territory.
There was a delicious irony about Iban being incorrectly penalised as he bore down unchallenged on Ghana’s goal with the game still scoreless. Had he gone on and scored, the on-field story might have been different. But the water bottles were already an on-field story. So sympathy was in short supply.
Cote D’Ivoire started the final much like they’d played in the semis. Pace and power abounded for ten minutes. And then…nothing. At all. And, bar some spectacularly pointless efforts from “Everton’s Christian Atsu”, Ghana matched them for footballing nihilism.
The Estadio de Bata was far from full, in keeping with the mediocre crowds the tournament attracted outside the Equato-Guinean games. And you could hear the players giving out to each other during the second half, which happened a lot. The teams became a shade more ambitious in extra-time. But a goal never looked likely, especially with talismanic strikers Bony and Asamoah Gyan both off their game. The penalty shoot-out, though, was a doozy.
Gyan has suffered enough international penalty heartache and Gervinho is presumably as bad at finishing with a dead ball from 12 yards as he is in general play from anywhere. So on came, again presumably, penalty specialists Acheampong and Tallo Gadji, Tallo almost not making it as he only got to the touchline in the 121st minute.
The wisdom of these substitutions will, however, forever be elusive, as Tallo poked his penalty about three yards wide, while Acheampong was unerringly accurate…in whacking his spot-kick against the same advertising hoarding, someway west of the supposed target.
Things looked desperate for Cote D’Ivoire when they were two-nil down with three penalties left, which makes Ghana’s defeat stranger still. But “the players who didn’t want to take the penalties” (Robson) were faultless. And Ghana keeper Brimah Razak was miles away from all of them anyway.
So even though their keeper, Boubacar Barry, appeared out on his feet between kicks, the Ivorians always looked favourites, especially when the keepers had to take kicks themselves at 8-8. Barry, by now “exhausted,” had to be hauled from the turf by Razak after saving his counterpart’s mediocre kick. But “Lazarus” Barry’s own spot-kick spark ended Cote D’Ivoire’s 23 years of hurt.
More fool British Eurosport. They ignored half the conclusive group stage action at the AFC Asian Cup and elbowed three of the four quarter-finals from their schedules in favour, among other delights, of persistent re-runs of a tennis magazine programme.
So two of the most exciting quarter-finals in recent international tournament history got no British television coverage whatsoever, while, Eurosport’s much-vaunted “70 hours of live programming” from Equatorial Guinea perpetually underwhelmed.
British Eurosport gave us one hour’s crassly-edited highlights of host nation Australia’s easy-as-you-like two-nil quarter-final victory over an enfeebled China. This was preceded by an umpteenth repeat of “Game, Set and Mats,” 30 minutes of ill-rehearsed comment on a day’s play at the Australian Open that had already been analysed up its own arse. And what did British Eurosport show immediately after the Australia game? “Game, Set and Mats,” the same bloody arse-analysis. Thanks.
There was no way that the third and fourth Asian Cup quarters were going to be shown live while the tennis was in full swing. But there wasn’t even a crassly-edited highlights programme squeezed in between the televisual delights of cross-country skiing and the (drum roll) cyclo-cross World Cup.
You must, therefore, trust me that Japan’s exit to the United Arab Emirates was a huge feat of penalty-box and shoot-out incompetence from the holders and favourites. And that extra-time and penalties between Iran and Iraq were ABSOLUTELY…FUCKING…MENTAL…
Iraq should not have needed extra-time, having been gifted a man advantage. “Another sensational refereeing decision from Ben Williams,” noted Australia’s Fox Sports 2 commentator with a clearly much-practised disrespect for his countryman, after Merhdad Pooladi received a second caution, for an invisible foul. And Iran boss Carlos Quieroz’s failed efforts to keep calm were all-too-reminiscent of his ex-boss Alex Ferguson during the Scot’s, cough, “ruddier-faced” days.
But despite equalising in the 57th minute, Iraq’s trademark effervescence succumbed to fear, with all the self-confidence emanating from the huge Iranian support, who cheered every tackle and clearance like it had won the match, at a high-pitch which suggested a more gender-diverse support than would have been possible in Teheran.
Extra-time, though, was sensational. Twice Iraq led. Twice the Aussie commentators suggested that “surely Iran can’t come back from here.” And twice they were wrong, as both sides defended balls into the box with all the assurance Liverpool have shown this season.
Dhurgham Ismail’s 117th-minute penalty was a suitably dramatic winner, although Morteza Pouraliganji’s foul was so blatant that only TWO team-mates protested the award. But something like Reza Goochannejhad’s equaliser, after a suitably manic bout of penalty box pinball, was inevitable.
Each side loused up their first kick. But having gone the wrong way virtually every time, Iraq keeper Jalal Hassan Hachim wasn’t about to be the hero. Vahid Amiri over-carefully side-footed his kick against the post. And Salam Shaker ended the insanity JUST in time for the next quarter-final.
This produced a different kind of tension (one for the Buzzcocks fans there) as Ali Mabkhout gave the UAE a seventh-minute lead and Japan – slowly at first but maniacally at the end – performed their full repertoire of chance-missing. THIRTY-TWO shots to three, for pity’s sake.
Gaku Shibasaki equalised on 81 minutes. But Shinji Kagawa brought a piece of Borussia Dortmund’s season to Sydney with his stoppage-time miss. And Japan lost all momentum in extra-time. Starman Keisuke Honda’s penalty shoot-out miss was a surprise. Kagawa’s decisive failure was less so.
It was no surprise that the semi-finalists who had a day’s extra rest and were involved in the relatively non-nuts quarter-finals fought out the final.
South Korea may have needed extra-time to overcome an ultimately disappointing Uzbekistan. But there were few of the dramas of the other 120-minute matches. And Iraq were clean out of puff when they tried to get a rally going after South Korea went two-up in their semi. A fresh Iraq would have made for a pulsating final 40 minutes but that just wasn’t available.
After the Socceroos blistering start to their semi-final against the UAE, the most excitement came from the British Eurosport studio. Commentator Tim Caple was determined that UAE star Omar Abdulraman was being bullied out of the game, as Australia had gracelessly predicted, while analyst Stewart Robson (correctly) took the more balanced view that they were only partly successful.
“He’s held onto the ball too long again” noted Caple, as Omar evaded three tackles and set up a shooting chance for Mabkhout. “That’s actually brilliant play,” Robson retorted, over supportive slow-motion replays. Caple was also determined that Aussie talisman Tim Cahill could do nothing wrong when in truth, after a fine tournament until then, Cahill could do nothing much at all.
Omar was, unsurprisingly, more consistently brilliant against weary Iraq in a fine “bronze medal” match. He, Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil were an intermittently unstoppable combination, especially for a fantastically-worked first goal in their 3-2 win. If Cote D’Ivoire/Australia can’t be arranged, get the UAE over to Craven Cottage for a game. I’ll go.
The final was a microcosm of the tournament. Never dull, even in the long swathes of chanceless play. Occasionally excellent – Massimo Luongo’s turn and 25-yard shot surely boosted Swindon’s world eyebrow-raising record attempt. And it had the requisite stoppage and extra-time drama rather than the forced drama of penalties after 120 minutes of no drama whatsoever (see the African final).
Son Heung-min grabbed South Korea’s 91st-minute equaliser with all the aplomb he lacked when wasting earlier chances. And the momentum was indisputably theirs going into extra-time until right on half-time when lanky Aussie sub Tom Juric untangled himself from a by-line melee. Korean keeper Kim Jin Hyeon palmed his cross to James Troisi, who couldn’t miss. And the wall of noise as the knackered Aussies held the fractionally more knackered Koreans in the second period of extra-time was remarkable.
So, Japan’s exit apart, the Asian Cup was largely predictable. Many observers would have guessed most of the thirty-one results since Australia’s opening day overpowering of Kuwait. This, though, did not detract from the spectacle, even if most teams’ lowly Fifa rankings were a fair reflection of their place in international football’s pecking order.
Omar personified the tournament. Watchable and skilful but beatable with power and intensity. When commentators doubted his ability to shine in the EPL, you initially sensed it was more “greatest league in the world” hype. But Omar hasn’t been picked up by the European big leagues at the age of 27. In this regard, the partial success he had against Australia might serve him better than the flashier displays against lesser lights.
The better teams would likely struggle as much in a World Cup held now as they did in Brazil. But the AFC Asian Cup was well-run, well-attended and played in a decent spirit. Debate continues over Australia’s place in planet football’s Asia. Yet they were worthy winners. And Sepp Blatter got a resounding booing at the closing ceremonies. You can’t ask for much more than that.
You can follow Mark on Twitter by clicking here.
You can follow twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.