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AFC Asian Cup 2007 – Not just about football

Although hardly tipped as favourites going in to the tournament, Iraq surprisingly claimed the 2007 AFC Asian Cup title in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Japan did not even make it to the final in their quest for a third consecutive triumph.
When the final whistle was blown at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta on 29 July, the scorer of the match’s winning goal and the tournament’s best player, Younis Mahmoud, and his Iraqi team-mates sprinted across the pitch to celebrate their 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia and victory in the AFC Asian Cup final.
Iraq had not been among the pretournament favourites, having had limited preparation following coach Jorvan Vieira’s arrival on 24 May, but the Brazilian coach brought the players from different backgrounds together and helped them play an attacking game. Thanks to their style of play and plenty of support from the 60,000 fans in the stands, Iraq overwhelmed three-time champions Saudi Arabia.
“This is not just about football; this has brought great happiness to a whole country,” Vieira said. “The Iraqi people and players are fantastic people with fantastic power inside them. I have learned a lot from them.” Iraq’s surprising success highlighted another element of the co-hosted tournament: what sport can do for the people.
In contrast to the Iraqis’ happy ending, Japan’s challenge for a third-straight title ended in failure alter a 3-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. “Fatigue overwhelmed our players, especially our key men,” lamented Japan coach Ivica Osim.
The Japanese players were visibly worn out as they travelled to the tournament straight from their regular season games and had to face the heat and high humidity of Hanoi. Osim’s Japan team struggled to find its best form, and the two Europe-based players
- Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara and Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura – had played only three games alongside their J.League-based team-mates ahead of the tournament.
Nevertheless, Japan produced an attractive game with more movement than the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ team, giving a hint of what can be expected from the three-time Asian champions in the future. But the Japanese players lack belief in their individual skills, especially when the going gets tough. “You cannot raise the level of your team’s game without improving individual skills; you need to have the skills to control the ball at top speed,” noted former Yugoslavia coach Osim.
Australia, making their Asian Cup debut, served as another focal point for media attention during the tournament. The Socceroos, formed around the squad that had reached the round of 16 of the World Cup in Germany last year, held a training camp in Singapore to acclimatise before heading to their venue in Bangkok.
Nevertheless, the Aussies struggled, drawing 1-1 with Oman and losing 3-1 to Iraq before finally beating Thailand 4-0 to set up a quarter-final encounter with Japan. Australia midfielder Tim Cahill showed frustration at the gap between what the players were feeling and the way their performances were presented in the Australian media. “We knew from the start of the tournament that the Asian nations are very good with great talent,” he told his country’s media. “You guys are uneducated about the Asian teams and how well they play.”
Australia’s run in the competition ended when they fell to Japan in a penalty shootout. Australia coach Graham Arnold said, “We have learned a lot in the last couple of weeks; Asia is very difficult. It’s shown the players that the road ahead is going to be very difficult. We are going to have to play 12 qualifiers in conditions and surroundings like this to reach the World Cup and all of our players are going to be playing in Europe.”
Korea Republic again demonstrated their mental toughness by overcoming a one-man disadvantage to edge out archrivals Japan on penalties in the third-place play-off in their third consecutive shootout of the tournament. The 2002 FIFA World Cup™ semi-finalists even had coach Pirn Verbeek and two of his assistants sent off halfway through the second half after they had disputed one of the referee’s decisions. Without injured Manchester United midfielder Park Ji Sung, the Korean midfield suffered and the team struggled to score throughout the tournament.
Among the tournament’s surprise packages, Uzbekistan played some gutsy attacking football with good teamwork to come close to beating Saudi Arabia in the quarter-finals. With the exception of Malaysia, all of the co-host nations did well and helped to narrow the gap between the so-called big guns and alsorans of Asian football. Vietnam reached the quarter-finals after finishing behind Japan in Group B, prompting thousands of fans waving national flags to parade through the streets of Hanoi on their motorbikes in celebration.
Vietnam’s success stemmed from their hard work under Austrian coach Alfred Riedl, who introduced a running-and-passing game that suited the nimble Vietnamese. After a shock 2-0 victory over the UAE, they drew 1-1 with Qatar before losing to Japan 4 – 1 .
Indonesia and Thailand also performed well. Indonesia beat Bahrain 2-1, while Thailand battled to a 1-1 draw with Iraq and beat Oman 2-0.
The host nations’ performances attracted big crowds to their games. Vietnam filled the 40,000-capacity My Dinh Stadium with their fans, and Indonesia drew a combined total of 234,000 fans to their three games in Jakarta. These were the positive effects of the four-nation co-hosting arrangement, but the tournament struggled to draw fans to games that did not involve the hosts.
Some difficulties were also experienced in logistical terms. Saudi Arabia and Japan, for example, took 12 hours to travel between Hanoi and Jakarta because of the lack of direct flights between the two cities and the fact that the teams were not provided with a charter flight or booked on the shortest route.
Iraq experienced problems at their official team hotel in Kuala Lumpur, due to a shortage of rooms when they arrived. And Japan did not have enough rooms for their team staff at the official team hotel in Palembang, Indonesia. “You always have to try something, but my advice is do it in a different way next time,” said Korea coach Verbeek of the four-nation co-hosting. “Because of travelling and organisation, it’s tough. We had different climates, different stadiums and different food. It is very hard for the players to travel 12 to 13 hours by plane. It’s not easy for the teams at all.”
Osim voiced his concerns on the quality of play: “I wonder if summer is the right time to have a tournament in Asia, considering the high heat and the high humidity. To show the wonders of football, it is better to have decent conditions that enable us to play football normally.”
AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam explained that the organisers had had one year less to prepare for this competition following the 2004 tournament in China and that they had had to spend lots of time upgrading the facilities at the venues to comply with the tournament regulations. However, he was optimistic about the 2011 event in Qatar, where the organisers will be able to focus on promotion and organisational matters since the Qatari infrastructure is already at a high level.
“There are lots of lessons for AFC or any other organisation if they want to organise [a tournament] with more than one country,” said Hammam. “We’d like to be able to ensure that our participating teams are comfortable anywhere they stay and that fans have easy access to the country. But some countries cannot provide these things so easily. These lessons have to be learned for the future.”