Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Asian Cup 2011: Every team, every ground, every game

Dr. Joel Rookwood

'January 2011 is the month which will see Australia crowned kings of Asian football in Qatar' - a bold statement to offer up at the start of a competition (and an article), and one I will stand by, at least until they get knocked out in a semi final penalty shoot out that is.

Aside from the likelihood of Australian success this assertion could offer up another series of questions, such as: why 2011 – as a quadrennial tournament shouldn't the 2004 event have been followed by competitions in 2008 and 2012? Weren't the last Championships held in July? Why is it being hosted by Qatar? Isn't Australia in Oceania? Do they even play football there? Surely the Japanese or the South Koreans are better?


Some of these issues can be explored by referring to global calendars, unforgiving climates, and financial and political resources. However, the most significant question might concern the very notion of Australian involvement in an event once reserved solely for Asian teams.


We live in a world where residency can be bought, citizenship can be shared, and nationality can be chosen; where international representation in sporting spheres can divide brothers and unite strangers. National identity is adopting increasing fluidity, shaped by market forces, international law and migration patterns.


Continental sporting competitions are no stranger to mobility, or to globalisation. Football confederation events can now see players from Vladivostok compete for a European crown, men from Guadalajara invited to take on the cream of South America, and footballers from Accra win international tournaments in European colours. 2011 could (although it won't) also see Japan crowned kings of both Asia and South America, after the Japanese accepted an invitation to partake in July's Copa America in Argentina.

Armed with that frame of reference, the defence for Australia's move into the AFC and their notable presence at Qatar's Asian Cup appears more watertight; almost as tight as a pair of Lucas Neill shorts.

Legitimacy aside, Australia are in Qatar, and judging by Monday's performance in their opening game against India at the Al Sadd stadium, they are here to win the competition. The strongest score line of the event so far might have been achieved against the weakest team in the tournament, but the manner in which Australia eased to the 4-0 victory will make the remaining pretenders to the crown sit up and take notice.

With a forward line that would once have divided Merseyside, first half strikes from Cahill and Kewell set the tone, followed by a goal from Holman, earning Australia an unassailable lead at the interval. With the foot well and truly off the pedal, the team in yellow and green barely left first gear in the second half, settling for the addition of a single goal, courtesy of Tim Cahill, the Everton goal machine (apologies for the contradiction in terms). It was clearly an honour for the Indians to share the same turf as their Australian victors, with both sets of players gracious in accepting the contest's inevitable conclusion.



Later that evening South Korea stuttered to a 2-1 victory over Bahrain at Al Gharafa. Continuing the theme of the Middle East's pitiful and the Far East's unconvincing start to the competition, a late Faouzi Asish penalty could not change the complexion of this otherwise uneventful fixture, which saw the majority of the crowd struggle with fatigue.



Bahrain should have more success against the Indians in the next round of fixtures, which will first see an intriguing contest between Australia and South Korea. Bahraini hopes are set to be dashed with finality in their concluding group game against Australia, with the Koreans undoubtedly subjecting India to a third successive defeat.

My final day in Doha began with the other Korea, in what was unquestionably the least memorable encounter of the tournament. A pitiful crowd of 3,000 attended their goalless draw with UAE. (More people attended non-league Crawley Town's FA Cup defeat of Derby County later that day in West Sussex).


There were few highlights to relay on the large screen, which are typically employed in this competition merely to display misspelt names of substitutes and massaged attendance figures. With each competing nation referred to by three letters on the adjoining scoreboard, "D" was the letter ominously omitted from DPRK.

The (Democratic) People's Republic of Korea is one of sixty nations I am yet to have the pleasure of visiting, but if the reports of those who have are accurate, 'democratic' is not a word readily associated with the current regime.

Keen to capitalise on this rare opportunity to observe infamous North Korean customs, I slipped in amongst their supporters, much to their confusion. Every spectator wore black pants and shoes with a pristine white shirt and tie, complete with a Kim Jong-il pin badge.

The participation of the 300 North Korean supporters was directed by a disciplinarian conductor. Facing the crowd for the entire game, he was fortunate enough to remain oblivious to the lifeless football match unfolding behind him.

Like a choirmaster at an underperforming Kent preparatory school, he led with ferocity, pointing and shouting at those who sang or clapped out of rhythm, with surly assistants using dated camcorders to capture perpetrators on film. No one really smiled and no one really understood what was happening. It was a melancholic albeit fascinating couple of hours; punctuated on the pitch only by a penalty, foolishly struck onto the frame of the goal by the man formerly known as Hong Yong-jo.



My presence in the midst of the Koreans was unsurprisingly noted, inspiring a series of half time questions from a "freelance journalist", (who should have done better in hiding his Kim Jong-il pin badge from view). Referring to myself by the name of a close friend, I entertained his questions, more out of curiosity than a desire to be helpful. He scribbled furiously as I revealed that the South Africa World Cup t-shirt I was sporting had been purchased at Portugal’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea in Cape Town the previous summer.
I left the Qatar Sports Club for Al Rayyan stadium with international relations rather than football dominating the mindset. Fittingly the following fixture was none other than Iran v Iraq. When the draw was made for the competition, this is the contest I wanted to attend above all others - and not simply because I was travelling with a lad of Iranian descent. Having seen every match and every team play thus far, I decided to make this my last game of the Asian Cup 2011.

As a stadium announcement was made about observing a period of silence dedicated to those who perished in a plane crash in Iran earlier in the week, the Iraq team chose to form a huddle, met with cheers from Iraqis, and jeers from Iranians. Wolfgang Sidka's team did eventually join their neighbours to the east in spreading across the centre circle for a moment of silence, after which an enthralling context commenced.


Virtually every piece of footballing literature I have read on the 2007 Asia Cup victors makes reference to 'war-torn Iraq', as if it were the name of a recently established state. The Iraqis were in no mood for self-pity in Al Rayyan however. They were well represented by a vocal expatriate community, who clearly enjoyed the moment that saw Mahmoud fire them into a deserved lead.
Iran weathered a resultant storm before forcing their way back into the match, producing an equaliser on the stroke of half time through Rezaei. A more cautious second half looked destined to remain goalless, until a Khalatbari free kick bounced through a wall of players, giving Iran a late and ultimately decisive lead. Neither team are destined to win this year's event, yet this contest was a grudge battle that transcends football.


And so, after watching all sixteen teams play in five stadiums across as many days, I bid farewell to Doha and Qatar. I will miss waking up on the 31st floor of a hotel looking out onto a city that seems to change on a daily basis. 30 degree January afternoons, £3 match tickets and amiable if elusive taxi drivers have done their part in making this refreshingly under-commercialised event a success thus far (even if the 24-hour construction industry and regular prayer calls have been less well received).




As the Middle East gears up for a World Cup, Qatar's experience of hosting the Asian equivalent should yield meaningful lessons. FIFA's agenda, shaped by the protection and advancement of international football, is likely to see seasonality, alcohol restrictions, accommodation, architecture and sustainability dominate the dialogue and the decisions.



The scores of cranes, ominous open spaces and huge financial resources are likely to mean an entirely different Doha will play the central role in 2022. For both critics and exponents, one fact commentators agree on is that it will be a World Cup like no other. In the meantime, 'January 2011 is the month which will see Australia crowned kings of Asian football in Qatar'.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood & Soccerphile.com

Find the latest Asian Cup odds at Bet 365, which has LIVE STREAMING of the Asian Cup matches.

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.


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1 comment:

David said...

What a brilliant blog - keep it up.
Well done.
David

http://www.keelbyunited.co.uk