Asian football strengthens in 2011

Match-fixing, related suicides, corruption and other assorted

controversies could not prevent 2011 from being overall a good year

for Asian football, as the continent’s prominence in the global

game continued to grow.

The previous year ended with Qatar shocking the world by being

awarded the 2022 World Cup and just a few days into 2011 the tiny

nation was once again on center stage as it hosted the Asian

Cup.

Although most matches were played in half-empty stadiums,the

football was of a relatively high standard, with Japan, Australia

and South Korea cementing their reputations as Asia’s best

teams.

Japan eventually lifted the trophy with a 1-0 win in the final

over Australia. It was the first of two major successes for the

country with the women’s team lifting the World Cup in the

summer.

”We are all delighted at the JFA at the success that Japanese

football has had in 2011,” Kozo Tashima, the vice president of the

Japan Football Association, told Associated Press earlier this

month. ”The year started well in Asia in January, we had a global

success in July which thrilled the national after a difficult

time.”

That ”difficult time” was the period following the March 11

earthquake and tsunami that left 5,839 dead and 3,647 missing, with

the local J-League suspended for six weeks.

In April, South Korea was in the headlines for a huge

match-fixing scandal that saw over 60 players, past and present,

indicted for accepting money to rig the results of K-League and cup

games. The scandal caused one former player and one team coach to

commit suicide.

Both Japan and South Korea continued to provide players to the

big European leagues at increasingly young ages.Stars such as

Shinji Okazaki and Takashi Usami went to the Bundesliga while

Korea’s striker Ji Dong-won headed to Sunderland in the English

Premier League.

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. The continent’s increasing

wealth means that its clubs can compete with the western giants in

the transfer market and a growing number of international stars

have headed eastwards.

One of the biggest moves came in September when Asamoah Gyan,

the main striker of English Premier League team Sunderland,

suddenly joined Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates on loan for a

year.

In December, Nicolas Anelka left Chelsea to join Shanghai

Shenhua. The Chinese club has reportedly offered the former French

international $14 million a year.

The striker follows in the footsteps of Argentina’s Dario Conca

who cost Guangzhou Evergrande $10 million in the summer. Both

players are among the highest-paid in the world and the moves show

that the continent is on the rise according to Zhang Jilong, the

acting president of the Asian Football Confederation.

”It is always good to see world-class players signing up for

Asian clubs,” Zhang told AP. ”Football fans around the world will

pay more attention to Asian soccer because of these big signings.

It also proves that the gap between Asian football and the best of

world football is closing fast.”

In November Zhang presented the Asian Champions League trophy to

Al Sadd of Qatar to end five years of Japanese and South Korean

domination.

The triumph was not without controversy. Al Sadd lost both legs

of its quarterfinal against Sepahan but still progressed to the

last four as the Iranians fielded an ineligible player. In the

semifinal, the Qatari club scored a goal that was perceived as

unsporting against Suwon Bluewings and a massive brawl ensued. Al

Sadd, nicknamed Al Badd in Korea, defeated Jeonbuk Motors in the

final.

On the national team level, Asia has been focused on

qualification for the 2014 World Cup. One game of the third and

penultimate round remains but already China, North Korea and United

Arab Emirates have fallen by the wayside.

In earlier stages, Palestine played its first ever World Cup

qualification match on home soil defeating Afghanistan in the first

round only to lose in the second round to Thailand. In the third

round, Lebanon hogged the headlines by defeating South Korea 2-1 in

November to move second in the group.

That loss, against a team more than 100 places lower in the

world rankings, cost South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae his job. Cho

was fired in December just shortly before Sebastiao Lazaroni was

dismissed from Qatar. The Brazilian was the third man to manage the

team in 2011.

Coaches come and coaches go and some big names arrived in Asia

to take control of national teams. The biggest belonged to former

Netherlands and Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard who took over Saudi

Arabia and new Iran boss Carlos Queiroz, ex-Real Madrid and

Portugal head coach.

Asia’s biggest name off the field also departed. For much of the

year, the AFC has been without a president. The continent’s leader

of nine years, Mohammed Bin Hammam announced in March that he would

challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the May election for the

world’s number one soccer job.

Bin Hammam withdrew from the race after accusations of

vote-buying. In July, FIFA’s Ethics Committee handed the official a

life ban from football. Bin Hammam has appealed but regardless of

the outcome in that hearing, a return to the head of the AFC is

unlikely. The biggest political issue of 2012 will be the jockeying

to see who will replace him.