Afghan triumph highlights mixed year for Asia

Gunfire sounded on the streets on Kabul in September but for

once, there was plenty to be happy about as Afghanistan made

headlines around the world by becoming the champion of South Asia.

It was a rare feel-good story connected to the country and the most

memorable event in another busy year for Asian football.

The result was not a shock, even if some headlines suggested so.

Afghanistan reached the final in the 2011 edition of the biennial

regional tournament, losing to India in Delhi. Revenge was sweet in

September with a 2-0 win over the same team in Kathmandu. Tens of

thousands of people celebrated in Kabul and the team was welcomed

home by President Hamid Karzai.

”You can’t imagine how big this moment is for our country, our

fans, our team and me,” said the victorious coach Yousef Kargar.

”We have proved that we belong in the world of football. Our team

has improved a lot over the last few years and I am sure we will

get better in the years to come.”

If the Lions of Khorasan can win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, a

tournament held for Asia’s developing nations, then it will qualify

for the 2015 Asian Cup to be held in Australia and possible games

against continental giants such as Japan and South Korea.

”Afghanistan’s success in South Asia has… served a caution to

2014 AFC Challenge Cup title aspirants. They have showed their

mettle at the regional level and they would be one of the favorites

in Maldives,” said Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh

Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

Salman made headlines in May as he won an overwhelming victory

for the presidency of the AFC, easily defeating Yousef Al Serkal of

the United Arab Emirates and Thailand’s Worawi Makudi. The

Bahraini’s ascension to Asia’s top job ended almost two years of

uncertainty after the suspension of Mohamed bin Hammam from the

post in May 2011 for alleged vote-buying.

There have been other changes at the AFC. Backed by FIFA

vice-president Ali Al Bin Hussein of Jordan, the Asian Champions

League has been expanded. The number of nations with a chance of

participating in the continent’s premier club competition will

increase from ten in 2013 to 19 next year, allowing countries such

as Hong Kong, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to enter.

Jordan’s national team came close to qualifying for the biggest

prize of all -the 2014 World Cup – but lost an intercontinental

playoff against Uruguay, beaten 5-0 at home in the first leg before

a creditable scoreless draw away.

That defeat left Asia with four familiar teams going to Brazil.

Japan was the most, perhaps only, impressive performer and clinched

its spot with a 1-1 draw against Australia. That result was the

Socceroos’ best performance of an underwhelming campaign and they

had to wait until the final whistle of the final game to be sure of

automatic qualification.

Despite qualifying for the World Cup, Australia fired Holger

Osieck as coach after some poor performances in friendlies and went

against its recent trend by appointing a home-grown replacement in

Ang Postecoglou who has proven his mettle in the local

A-League.

Iran had wobbled in its bid for Brazil but ended strongly with

three wins from the last three, including a final day 1-0 victory

in a bad tempered clash with South Korea. The Koreans squeezed into

an eighth successive World Cup but were far from fluent. At the end

of qualification coach Choi Kang-hee stepped down and former

playing legend Hong Myong-bo took the reins.

Australia received a horror draw for the World Cup, pitted

against the 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus Chile.

Japan will face Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece. Iran takes on

Argentina, Bosnia and Nigeria while South Korea is happy to be

drawn with Belgium, Algeria and Russia.

Guangzhou Evergrande took the headlines at club level, becoming

the first Chinese winner of the Asian Champions League. Marcello

Lippi also became the first coach to win the premier Asian and

European club competitions. The big spending Cantonese team

strolled to the final though it needed away goals to overcome FC

Seoul of South Korea.

Guangzhou lost both games at the FIFA Club World Cup in December

but captain Zheng Zhi was named the 2013 Asian Player of the Year

by the AFC while teammate Dario Conca was awarded the prize of Best

Foreign Player in Asia.

Asian exports to Europe had a mixed year. Shinji Kagawa won the

English Premier League title at the end of his first season in

England with Manchester United in May but has struggled for playing

time in his second campaign under new coach David Moyes.

Former United star Park Ji-sung tasted relegation with QPR

before returning to PSV Eindhoven while fellow Korean Son Heung-min

is a star of the Bundesliga and joined title-chasing Bayer

Leverkusen in the summer for around $15 million. In December,

Keisuke Honda finally joined Italian giant AC Milan to end another

very interesting 12 months for Asian football fans.