Victory in the Asian Cup they hosted seals Australia’s place in the heart of the Asian confederation
Ange Postecoglou pumped his arms wildly at the crowd, willing them on to make even more noise in the deafening Homebush surrounds. Australia had just claimed their first Asian Cup at their third attempt with a dramatic extra-time victory over South Korea. ANZ Stadium was awash with green and gold confetti and Men At Work’s ‘Land Down Under’ blared out of the speakers as a nation rejoiced. It was a special moment for Postecoglou, the homegrown coach who had been in charge for only 14 months but had been slammed in the lead-up to the tournament for his experimental approach and steadfast refusal to alter his plans. The son of Greek migrants who was part-visionary, part-football evangelist, Postecoglou was lapping up every second of an emotionally charged night. He stood alone on the turf, elated, vindicated. It was a triumph, not only for the 49 year old but for the Australian footballing community that had finally come of age and for a nation starting to engage properly with Asia.
For a decade, Australia had been the odd man out in Asia, largely unwanted but desperate for regular meaningful games and footballing acceptance. In 2005, they had left Oceania and joined the Asian confederation (AFC) for a more secure path to the World Cup and a way of guaranteeing higher quality matches after qualifying for just two major tournaments in 45 years. After the success of the 2006 World Cup – at which the Socceroos pushed the eventual winners Italy all the way in the round of 16 before an injury-time penalty from Francesco Totti cruelly knocked them out – Australian football was on a high. Its golden generation of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Craig Moore was as its peak and keen for greater success. Australia were members of the AFC and the future appeared bright.
But the country’s relationship with its northern neighbours had always been rocky, partly because of its existence as a Western-focused former British colony located at the bottom corner of the southern hemisphere, and partly because of long-standing fears of Asian immigration within Australia and some internal opposition to multiculturalism. In football it would be no different.
Coming off the World Cup in Germany, the expectations for the Socceroos in their Asian Cup debut in 2007 were high. Many tipped the Aussies to walk through the competition in a tournament that was co-hosted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. After bright performances against Brazil, Croatia and Italy, what could minnows like Oman and Iraq bring? A lot more than the Socceroos could handle, it turned out, as the Antipodeans struggled to deal with the heat, the conditions and opponents that were far more structured and disciplined than they expected. Filled with hubris and arrogance, a squad beset by internal issues and saddled with a caretaker manager who did not command their respect, the Socceroos bombed out. A very lucky 1-1 draw with Oman, thanks to a 92nd minute header from Cahill, was followed by a deserved 3-1 loss to Iraq and a one-sided 4-0 thrashing of Thailand. Australia scraped through to the quarter-finals behind Iraq, but were beaten on penalties by the Asian heavyweights Japan.
The Australians reached the next World Cup in South Africa through the Asian Confederation, but failed to recreate the glory of four years earlier and didn’t make it out of their group. They entered their second Asian Cup, held in Qatar in early 2011, with a new head coach and a new plan to win the tournament. More experienced in Asia and with a sprinkling of a fresh blood, the Socceroos got off a better start in Doha. Under Holger Osieck, Franz Beckenbauer’s assistant with West Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning side, Australia secured top spot in their group with wins over India and Bahrain and a draw with South Korea. They beat the 2007 Asian Cup champions Iraq after extra time in the quarter-final, then breezed past Uzbekistan in the semi-final, smashing six past the White Wolves. But Japan won the final thanks to Tadanari Lee’s 109th-minute volley and the trophy eluded them again. Australia, though, were learning fast and they were handed the right to host the 2015 tournament as the sole bidder.
After rebuilding at the 2014 World Cup, where no Asian nation made it out of their group, expectation was still high for the hosts even though the Socceroos came into the Asian Cup with one win from their previous 12 matches and a record of one win, one draw and three losses since Brazil. Osieck had been replaced by Ange Postecoglou in November 2013. He had a mandate to rejuvenate the squad: he axed the veterans Neill and Schwarzer, blooding youngsters and trialling 43 players in just 12 months. It was experimentation that the national side had never seen before. The 2014 World Cup was a write-off, nine goals conceded in three straight defeats, but there were signs in South America that Postecoglou’s surgery was starting to pay off. But for a moment of Alexis Sánchez brilliance or a vintage Arjen Robben dribble and strike, Australia may have jagged points off Chile and the Netherlands. With a mantra of “judge me on the Asian Cup” fed to the media, Postecoglou had to be ready on his home turf as the pressure ramped up.
Japan headed south confident and secure in their status as Asia’s best team. Sure, Iran may have been ranked higher and have performed better at the World Cup, but the Samurai Blue were the defending Asian Cup champions and could call on players at bigger clubs than Team Melli. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Shinji Okazaki… no other Asian side was blessed with a similar array of Serie A, Premier League and Bundesliga talent. The Mexican Javier Aguirre had taken the reins after the disappointment in Brazil and the expectation was that his experience in international football and La Liga would prove telling with a star-studded squad. Over-confidence and the deployment of a pure goalscorer were the only doubts. Japan had even outplayed Postecoglou’s Socceroos just two months earlier, largely dominating the Australians in a 2-1 friendly win in Osaka.
Like the Samurai Blue, South Korea were in Australia with a point to prove after a dismal World Cup. After two defeats and a draw in Brazil, they turned to Uli Stielike, the wily German who had led Switzerland and Côte d’Ivoire but had spent the previous six years coaching clubs in Qatar. The 60 year old set about adding greater structure and discipline, instilling steel into a side blessed with fine technique and speed.
Iran’s preparation for tournament had been shambolic at best. While the Iranians had been unlucky in Brazil, pushing Argentina hard before being undone by a brilliant Lionel Messi goal, the wheels had almost fallen off in the six months since. Carlos Queiroz remained Team Melli’s coach but doubts persisted about his long-term future after four years in the job. The financing of the team had become a major issue and Queiroz had found it difficult to secure his players for matches leading up to the Asian Cup. Still, Iran had the benefit of a large expat supporter base in Australia and were handed a favourable draw in a group with Bahrain, Qatar and UAE.
It had been feared that the Asian Cup might be plagued by hot temperatures at the height of Australia’s summer. But the tournament started in Melbourne in cool conditions, across the road from tennis’s Rod Laver Arena, the home of the Australian Open. It was an inauspicious start with a small crowd and a quietish atmosphere at the 30,000-capacity AAMI Park. With a darts event taking over the 56,000-strong Docklands Stadium, games in the Victorian capital were held in the home of the A-League clubs Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City. Australia approached the opening game against Kuwait with apprehension. Would Postecoglou’s reformed side fire? Had the leaky Australian defence finally been plugged? Would the people of Australia, a country with four football codes and a myriad other sports all competing for eyeballs, support the competition in numbers? The wait for answers would not be long.
After an opening ceremony that bordered on the farcical, Hussain Fadhel’s goal just eight minutes into the match confirmed many fears – the Socceroos’ back four was as hard as a cloud. Fadhel’s low dive to head the bouncing ball past Mat Ryan, after a mix-up in the Australian box, was perfectly timed but the result of comical defending. The response from the green and gold was swift.
The Australian attack surged forward and Cahill, once the tormentor of defences in the English Premier League, struck. Fed by a cutback from the Swindon Town midfielder Massimo Luongo, Cahill equalised and then Luongo himself headed home to put the Socceroos 2-1 ahead at half-time. A penalty from Mile Jedinak and a close-range finish from James Troisi in the second half had the hosts humming and the pressure eased. Australia had got the opening win they craved and the Asian Cup had begun in high-scoring fashion.
Saudi Arabia, three times a winner of the tournament, and China met the following night at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. The Saudis had entered the tournament shorn of their main striker and reigning Asian Footballer of the Year, Nasser Al-Shamrani. The 71-cap veteran was set to be public enemy number one in Australia, having spat on the Socceroo defender Matt Spiranovic in the Asian Champions League final, but his absence through injury robbed the Asian Cup of this controversy and, crucially, the Green Falcons of their star. China, having failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, were starting again under the French coach Alain Perrin.
In the end it was a 12-year-old ball boy who proved to be the difference between the two teams. Stephan White’s advice to China’s Wang Dalei to dive left as Saudi Arabia’s Naif Hazazi stepped up to take a penalty was decisive. Hazazi’s shot was saved and Team Dragon won the match 1-0. It was the beginning of a poor tournament for Saudi Arabia, which would include a 4-1 victory over North Korea and a 3-1 loss to Uzbekistan. The Uzbek win condemned the Green Falcons to third spot and elimination while Team Dragon headed into the quarter-finals unbeaten.
On the same evening South Korea rode their luck but saw off Oman 1-0 in Canberra. The Koreans had not convinced and were grateful to the goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon, but they would improve with time. Another one-goal victory, over Kuwait, followed, meaning a match against the hosts in Brisbane would decide the winners of Group A.
Iran and Bahrain did battle in Melbourne while the UAE met Qatar in Canberra as Group C got underway. Expectations were high for Qatar considering its petro-fuelled investment in football and its controversial capture of the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The Maroon had beaten Australia 1-0 in October in Doha and were seen as a good bet to make it out of their group. They started strongly, Khalifan Ibrahim getting the opener with a flying volley, but then the Emiratis swung into action, doubles from Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout, two coming from set pieces, stopping the Qataris in their tracks. It was the start of a great tournament for the UAE and in particular for their emerging attackers Mabkhout and the winger Omar Abdulrahman.
There are roughly 35,000 Iran-born expats in Australia and it seemed that nearly half of them were on hand to see Team Melli in the flesh. Women are banned from attending matches in Iran, but in Melbourne the national team was supported by both sexes with faces painted green, white and red, adding vibrancy to a tournament desperately craving it. Iran finished off Bahrain with goals from Ehsan Hajsafi and Masoud Shojaei. They moved on to Sydney and the Team Melli bandwagon only got bigger. After the defeat of Qatar, Ashkan Dejagah remarked that the raucous atmosphere meant “it was like playing in Tehran”. Several of his teammates posed for photos with young women in the stands at full-time. It was an act that drew the ire of the Iranian Football Federation, which stated, “In some of the selfies that our players have taken with the fans we can see they appear next to people whose appearance we regard as being against our moral principles.”
For Palestine, football is not merely a game but a way of expressing its existence. Fifa has recognised Palestine since 1998 and this Asian Cup was the first time they had qualified for a major tournament. Ashraf Nu’man’s goal against the Philippines at the AFC Challenge Cup final in May 2014 had booked their place and Australia’s Palestinian community was ready to party in a big way.
A small but vocal brigade was on hand in Newcastle for Palestine’s Asian Cup debut against Japan. Ranked 115th in the world, Palestine had little chance, but that mattered little to the Palestinian supporters. Every clearance, every header of the ball out of danger, was cheered as though they had won the Asian Cup. Straightforward goals from Endo, Okazaki, Yoshida and a penalty to Honda put the Samurai Blue in control but could not dampen Palestine’s spirit. Their fans sang and drummed on: just the fact they had it made it this far was an achievement.
Jordan put five past them, Iraq two, but still the Palestinians cheered. Jaka Ihbeisheh’s strike against Jordan, Palestine’s only goal of the tournament, was a rare highlight on the pitch. As one fan put it, “Support is awareness. If I was a player who came here from a war zone and saw the thousands of people who will be dressed in Palestinian colours, that’s more of a victory than actually winning a game.”
Australia’s third game was their toughest test to date, but one the local community was pretty positive that they would pass. Kuwait had been brushed aside 4-1, Oman obliterated 4-0. Qualification for the quarter-finals had already been secured and a draw would be enough to maintain top spot in the group and an easier path to the final. In contrast, South Korea had laboured to narrow victories. A virus had swept through the Korean camp before the second match, leading Stielike to make seven changes, and the Taeguk Warriors had yet to ignite properly. Could they contain the free-flowing Aussie attack?
Searing heat and a plague of moths greeted the two sides in Brisbane. Postecoglou rested his first-choice front three, bringing in the A-League forwards Tomi Juric and Nathan Burns to lead the line. The Socceroos were bright and positive until they were sucker-punched on 32 minutes. The Aussies pushed forward after the ball was cleared but possession was lost and Lee Jeong-hyeop was left free, giving him enough time to drift into the box unattended and fire a low shot past Ryan.
From there the Koreans shut up shop. Wave after wave of Socceroo pressure marched forward but South Korea would not budge. Kim Jin-hyeon was immense in goal and even Cahill, brought on after 70 minutes, could not save Australia. The Koreans went through in top spot to a meeting with Uzbekistan while the Socceroos stayed in Brisbane to play China. The pressure on the hosts came flooding back, along with the doubts about Postecoglou.
Every tournament has a game than stands out, a fixture of immense entertainment and drama that is remembered for years. This time it was the quarter-final between Iraq and Iran. The war between the two nations in the 1980s killed more than a million people and the wounds are far from healed.
Team Melli went in front after 24 minutes thanks to a thumping header from Sardar Azmoun. But then the referee Ben Williams asserted his influence on the match. After booking Mehrdad Pooladi earlier in the game, he showed him a second yellow card after making slight contact with the Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hassan when chasing down the ball. Hassan responded by pushing Pooladi, who crashed theatrically to the turf, but that couldn’t save him. Williams appeared to forget he’d already booked Pooladi, but the Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud ran the length of the field to ensure Pooladi was sent off. Carlos Queiroz had already slammed Williams for his performance in Iran’s win over Bahrain.
Iraq took advantage of their numerical advantage and scored through Ahmed Yasin. Extra-time beckoned. Mahmoud headed in on 93 minutes to put the Iraqis in front, but Morteza Pouraliganji smashed in a header to equalise. The scores were level for just two minutes, as a bizarre error from Pouraliganji handed Iraq a penalty from which Dhurgham Ismail made it 3-2. But with two minutes left, the substitute Reza Ghoochannejhad popped up to tuck home and send the game to penalties.
The penalties and their aftermath were just as enthralling as the 120 minutes. Both Hajsafi and Abdul-Amir missed their opening spot-kicks, with the next 12 takers all finding the back of the net. Iran’s Vahid Amiri was not so lucky, his miss handing the initiative to Iraq. When Salam Shaker fired home, a remarkable upset was complete: Iran were heading home and Iraq would face South Korea in the semi-final. Team Melli appealed for the result to be overturned because Iraq had fielded Alaa Abdul-Zahra, who had failed a doping test in 2014, but their protest was dismissed.
Japan were expected to beat UAE to set up a semi-final with Australia, whom they had eliminated in the past two Asian Cups. But Mabkhout continued his impressive Asian Cup with another goal, his fourth of the tournament, just seven minutes in. The Emiratis packed men behind the ball and Japan surged ahead to respond. The Samurai Blue enjoyed 68% possession and fired in 32 shots to UAE’s three. They had 18 corners while their opponents couldn’t muster one. Finally, in the 81st minute, Gaku Shibasaki fired in from long range and the game went to penalties.
Penalty shoot-outs can do funny things to players, no matter the experience, their pedigree or individual skill. Keisuke Honda stepped up and, echoing Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup final, put his shot high over the bar. Omar Abdulrahman, the 23 year old coveted by Manchester City and Barcelona, then had the confidence to deliver a successful panenka. The UAE were ahead until Khamis Esmaeel went high and wild with the third kick. Yohei Toyoda scored to put Japan 3-2 ahead. The two teams traded goals until Shinji Kagawa hit the right-hand post and rebounded across the face of the goal. Ismail Ahmed scored to win it, the cup holders were out and Aguirre was sacked.
The trend of exciting quarter-finals continued. A counter-attacking China frustrated the slow-starting Socceroos in the first half and looked strong until Cahill scored two second-half goals, the first an audacious bicycle kick, the second a trademark header. Uzbekistan held South Korea scoreless until the 104th minute, Son Heung-min scoring twice in extra-time to eliminate the White Wolves.
The quarter-finals failed to match the magic of the previous round, the heavyweights Australia and South Korea playing to form and defeating their weaker opponents. Both the UAE and Iraq were spent after 120-minute efforts against Japan and Iran. Two goals from defenders in Newcastle put the Socceroos into the final, while a strike in each half in Sydney saw the Koreans through. Two weeks after the Taeguk Warriors had upstaged the Socceroos in Brisbane, they met again in Sydney. The best attack in the tournament would face the stingiest defence, yet to concede a goal after five matches.
I clambered off the train at Homebush along with carriages and carriages of merry Socceroo fans. Songs were sung and the mood was festive as the hot sun bore down. A gaggle of Taeguk fans bearing the South Korean flag boarded the steps of the escalator in front of me. One turned back to view the green and gold hordes descending on to the platform below us. “I don’t see too many red shirts,” he remarked in a concerned tone to his friend.
Sydney’s Olympic Park can be a strange place at the best of times. Built for the 2000 Summer Olympics, a vast precinct of stadiums located in the geographical centre of Australia’s biggest city, it’s a ghost town outside of match days. The 82,000 capacity ANZ Stadium had become Australia’s unofficial home since 1999 and was the scene of the dramatic penalty shootout win over Uruguay in 2005 that ended the Socceroos’ 32-year World Cup exile. 10 years on, Australia would either create history again or the Koreans would claim another Asian Cup after a 55-year wait.
The final started at a quick pace, both sides a touch nervy but South Korea showing more adventure in pressing the Australians hard. The visitors focused their attack on the Socceroos’ left and Son Heung-min almost had the opening goal on 36 minutes. Apart from a Cahill chance, dealt with expertly by Kim Jin-hyeon, it was a half dominated by the Taeguk Warriors until Australia’s emerging midfield maestro Massimo Luongo stamped his authority on the fixture. Receiving the ball near the top of the box from Trent Sainsbury, he shifted the ball from his left to his right foot, beating his defender with the turn, and fired a rasping shot past Kim.
South Korea returned to the field emboldened and aggressive. Stielike took off the forward Nam Tae-hee and brought on Lee Keun-ho, altering his 4-5-1 formation as the goal-chase increased. Robbie Kruse limped off and the full-back Ivan Franjic, who had carried a hip injury into the game, also had to be replaced. Postecoglou had already substituted Cahill, meaning his three changes had been made early and his midfield was disrupted, Mark Milligan moving into an unfamiliar right-back role. South Korea dominated but when the three minutes of injury-time were announced, it seemed Australia would hang on.
With 120 seconds left the visitors pulled off a neat one-two and Son blasted past Ryan. The final went to extra-time and the momentum appeared to be with South Korea. Before and throughout the tournament Postecoglou had stressed the importance of his players’ conditioning. The Socceroos had decided against playing a friendly just before the Asian Cup kicked off, unlike the other 15 teams, to get more time on the training pitch. His charges had run out of puff in the World Cup but they wouldn’t do the same this time.
Juric bamboozled two defenders by the goal-line and let loose a cross-cum-shot. Kim could only push it out to Troisi who bundled the ball into an empty net. The ANZ Stadium exploded. South Korea had 15 minutes to find another goal but it would not come and Australia had the victory.
“I do not agree that we are not champions,” said Stielike. “I agree we don’t have the cup but the way our players played today, we are also champions of a lot of hearts. There is only one deception, I’ve been here four weeks and I haven’t seen a single kangaroo.”
Postecoglou entered the press-conference room with his tie astray and hair ruffled. Accompanying him was Luongo, the baby-faced 22 year old who had been anointed as the star of the tournament. The coach spoke of his personal relief at winning the Asian Cup and insisted this would not be the end for his team but the beginning of a new goal – taking on the rest the world. Asia had finally been conquered and now the Confederations Cup in two years time and the next World Cup were in his sights. “We came into this confederation knowing it would be a huge challenge,” he said. “The Matildas won the Asian Cup, then Wanderers won the Champions League and now we’ve won. The goal for this confederation should be to break the European and South American monopoly on the World Cup. This tournament here, it’s a great achievement but it’s not the end of the journey.”
The Asian Cup had been a raging success, not only for Postecoglou’s side but for the whole host nation. Nearly 650,000 people had attended the 32 matches and the goals had rained in. New talents, like Abdulrahman and Luongo, had been discovered, while old heroes like Cahill and Cha Du-ri had bade farewell. Perhaps most importantly, Australia had got behind a tournament that brought it closer to Asia, closer to its future and created new bonds with this vast region.