SYDNEY (Reuters) – There is no doubt that to some jaundiced eyes, Australia winning the Asian Cup at their third attempt will be just further evidence of the weakness of the game on the world’s most populous continent.
The Socceroos became the eighth different winners of the title in the 16th edition of the continental tournament with their 2-1 victory over South Korea after extra time in front of 76,000 fans at Stadium Australia.
It was a Saturday night thriller worthy of bringing a close to a tournament that was organised with usual Australian efficiency and embraced by a nation normally in thrall to cricket and tennis at this time of year.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I thought it was a beautiful game. It’s what football is all about,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou told reporters after a pulsating match.
“It’s a final. It’s two teams going at it, giving everything they’ve got because they know what’s on the line. No team took a backward step.”
Postecoglou had joked earlier in the tournament about his team giving headaches to FIFA statisticians trying to figure out how such a lowly ranked team could be playing such good football.
The fact is though, for all the anomalies of the ranking system, Saturday night’s final matched the 100th-ranked hosts against the 69th ranked Taegeuk Warriors.
Both countries were among a four-strong Asian contingent that returned from last year’s World Cup in Brazil without a win between them.
Player of the Tournament, Australia midfielder Massimo Luongo, will fly back to Europe this week to rejoin Swindon’s campaign for promotion from England’s third tier.
The energetic 22-year-old may not be stuck in Wiltshire for too long, though, after he sealed a breakthrough campaign with a well-struck goal to give Australia the lead in the final.
That goal undoubtedly helped him edge out Omar Abdulrahman for the top player award despite the 23-year-old Emirati leaving a bigger stamp on the tournament with his exquisite ball skills and imagination.
Another of the standout players of the tournament, attacking midfielder Son Heung-min, recovered from illness early in his stay in Australia to take South Korea very close to ending their 55-year wait for a third Asian title.
There was plenty of quality goalkeeping on show as well with Australia’s 22-year-old Mat Ryan taking the award for the top shotstopper and also perhaps destined for a bigger European league than Belgium’s top flight.
Kim Jin-hyeon might have claimed the award had South Korea won the final having helped his team keep clean sheets in all their matches until the final, while Uzbekistan custodian Ignatiy Nesterov also deserved a mention.
Ali Makhbout was the top goalscorer of the tournament with five and his combination in attack with Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalili made United Arab Emirates a threat to any side.
Of the bigger names to coming into the tournament, Tim Cahill’s brace in the quarter-final defeat of China took his tally to 39 goals in 80 internationals and proved there was plenty of life yet in the 35-year-old.
AC Milan striker Keisuke Honda’s disappointing campaign reflected that of Japan with their continuing problem of converting well-worked approach play into goals.
It was perhaps summed up when he blasted the opening penalty in the shootout against the UAE, that saw the defending champions crash out in the quarter-finals, high over the bar.
That came on the same night as the match of the tournament, when Iraq overcame Iran in a two-and-a-half hour rollercoaster ride played out in a sensational atmosphere in Canberra that ended with a 7-6 shootout victory to the 2007 champions.
That the match probably turned on the controversial dismissal of Iran’s Mehrdad Pooladi by Australian referee Ben Williams was a reminder that Asia still has plenty of work to do to improve the quality of officiating in the region.
Qatar’s early departure does not augur well for their hopes of qualifying at least once for the World Cup in 2018 before hosting the finals in 2022, while the decline of three-times champions Saudi Arabia continued as they were bounced out in the group stage for the second tournament in a row.
Carlos Queiroz’s work with Iran proved the value of quality coaching to mould raw Asian talent, while Postecoglou, South Korea’s Uli Stielike, Alain Perrin with a fast-improving China and Emirati Mahdi Ali also had good tournaments.
Postecoglou and German Stielike are at different stages in rejuvenation projects but after their experiences in the Asian Cup, will be confident of taking much stronger sides to represent the continent at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“The goal for this confederation should be to break the European and South American monopoly on the World Cup,” Postecoglou said.
“It’s a great achievement but it’s not the end of the journey. It’s the beginning for us.”