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
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
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.