The Asian Cup 2015, which finished Saturday in Sydney, was one of the most successful and exciting football events in recent years.
After a dubious European Cup in Ukraine and Poland in 2012, an extravagant and wasteful World Cup in Brazil in 2014, a saga over the hosting of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, and of course, the cloud hovering over the locations of the next two World Cups, it seems healthy that a big football tournament will take place in a relaxed, liberal country, with a solid tradition of sports and fine organisation.
For this tournament, no public funds were scattered in all directions as an investment in the tournament, exploitation of migrant workers was not an issue, and people were not uprooted from their houses to make way for stadiums or fan-zones.
The existing facilities are used routinely by the Australians, and will be used in the future, even after the tournament, as football popularity increasing in the country. The fact that the Asian Champions League winner was Western Sydney Wanderers assures that the victory over South Korea yesterday closes a great year for Australian football.
At this tournament, the complex nexus of political conflicts and national tensions in Asia came alive and brought fascinating, historical moments. Looking into the past few weeks in Australia is as revealing on sports as it is on the knotty international relations.
1. First timers – the Palestinian national team made a first appearance in an official tournament. Although they endured three losses, conceding 11 goals in the process, they did, at least, score a superb consolation goal in the thrilling derby with Jordan, and more importantly, changed public opinion. The support the Palestinians received in Australia was passionate, international and significant to their efforts to achieve international recognition.
2. How do you say ‘Tweet’ in Persian? – Ali Reza Haghighi, the Iranian goalkeeper, posed innocently for a ‘selfie’ with a female Iranian fan, which did not hesitate and posted it to Twitter. The tweet led to angry reactions, accusations and threats on him in particular, and all the Iranian delegation in general, by senior Iranian authorities.
Despite claims that this was due to reasons of personal safety of members of the delegation, it turns out that Sharia influences Iranian people, even when they represent their country abroad. This event, which exploded a day after the reports of murders in Iraq, made it clear that the relations between radical Islam and the West have entered the tournament’s agenda.
This vast cultural divide, which shakes the world recently, reflected in the biggest mirror of reality: football.
3. No equality– this year’s tournament has set a new record: 26 consecutive games were finished without a tie result, more than any other big tournament. The previous record by the way was set in 1930 World Cup, in Uruguay.
4. Faster, stronger, higher – Ali Mabkhut, the Emirati striker, scored the fastest goal in the history of the competition, within 14 seconds of the opening whistle, during the group stage against Bahrain. He also finished as the top scorer of the tournament with five goals and helped his team qualify for the first time in 19 years to final-four and to finish in third place.
5. Potential profit – Australian Massimo Luongo, player of Swindon Town from England’s League One, was elected as the tournament’s MVP, and rightly so. The kid is only 21, but produced with four assists, two goals (including a crucial one in the final), and carried the Socceroos when Tim Cahill was exhausted. Australians can relax – they have an heir.
6. A stylish lad – Omar Abdul Rahman from the United Arab Emirates, also starred in this Asian Cup, and was one of the refreshing discoveries of the tournament. Controlled the pace of his team’s game, made four psychic assists, has a seventies Afro hairstyle and scored a great ‘Panenka’ kick in the penalties duel with Japan in the quarter-finals.
By the way, the ‘Panenka’ was popular in the tournament, when no fewer than four penalties in this style. Abdul Rahman is undoubtedly fashionable guy.
7. The surprise – this title goes to Japan, and not for a good reason. The defending champions, Asian champions for 4 times, loaded with stars from the Serie A, the Bundesliga and more, who killed everything that moves in front of it in the group stage, were eliminated in the quarter-finals by the United Arab Emirates, after an embarrassing loss on penalties. Honda’s missed penalty undermined the confidence of the Blue Samurais, and the guy from the previous paragraph just gave them the knock out.
8. The game- “A Third Gulf War” Iranian newspapers headlines screamed, the eve of the match between the two historic rivals, and oh, how they were right. Iranians led 1-0 at half-time, were handed a dramatic red card and conceded in the second as the game went into extra-time. There, the Iraqis took the lead twice, the Iranians have equalised twice, including a crazy sixth goal in the 119th minute.
Each goal was accompanied by dramatic celebrations of the benches, heaps of players and staff members, and thousands of excited fans in the stands. On the penalties, Iran couldn’t hold the pressure, and it ended in 7-6 to Iraq. This game reminded us how international football can be exciting, joyous and emotional.
The drama didn’t end after the penalties, with the Iranians appealing the outcome of the game, claiming that the Iraqis placed player who failed a drug test last September. FIFA had promised to investigate, and in a move which was widely seen as humiliating and embarrassing, it was decided that the Iranian delegation will stay in Australia to wait for the judgment.
The investigation had turned up with no evidence, and the Iranians, who were favorites to reach the final, all went home disappointed. The Iraqis, who are experiencing a general improvement in recent years, finished in the honorable fourth place.
9. Spectators and attendances – 649,705 spectators filled the five stadiums to watch the games, provided an average of 20,303 per game. An all-time record of the Asian Cup final, of 76,385 fans, attended the final in Sydney. 80 TV networks broadcasted the games worldwide.
According to official estimates of the organisers, there were about 800,000 television viewers, and a potential audience of 2.5 billion people. That’s a lot.
10. Worth to be mentioned: Hamza al-Dardour (Jordan), who bagged four against Palestine, Ahmed Khalil (United Arab Emirates), four spectacular goals, Lee Jung-Hyup (South Korea), a soldier in service and a national team’s rising star, Tim Cahill (Australia), at 35 has been a fantastic servant to the ‘Socceroos’.
History, politics, culture, Twitter, religion, inverters, promising youngsters and unprecedented peaks were all part of three weeks of football, which came to an end in Sydney. The tournament has been proof that international football in Asia is alive, kicking and getting better.