Their country’s victory in the Asian Cup provided a respite from bad news for Iraqis everywhere, but, as Justin McCurry explains, a competition with four host nations left plenty of others unhappy

After Japan’s politically charged victory over China in Beijing three years ago, few expected this year’s Asian Cup to amount to much more than the beginning of a regional power struggle between the Japanese and the confederation’s newcomers, Australia. In the end it amounted to the continent’s answer to total football: decent matches played in searing heat, organisational cock-ups (perhaps unsurprising given that there were four host nations), managerial resignations, and that old friend of FIFA knock-out tournaments, the soporific stalemate otherwise known as the third-place play-off.

Above all, Iraq’s 1-0 final victory showed how football retains the ability to unite and divide people like no other sport. When captain Younis Mahmoud lifted the trophy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 29, fans poured on to the streets of Baghdad and the Iraqi diaspora around the world allowed themselves a rare moment of unadulterated joy. It was almost possible to forget that, a few days earlier, ­suicide bombers in Baghdad had killed 50 people celebrating Iraq’s victory in their semi-final against South Korea.

Australia, meanwhile, had only an out-of-form Mark Viduka to contend with. He and the other stars of the Socceroos’ adventure in Germany a year earlier barely squeezed into the quarter-finals after losing a group game to Iraq in Thailand and looked as if they would have been happier administering thrashings to South Pacific islands on their former Oceania stomping ground. Being sent home by Japan – the team they beat in their opening World Cup match – only compounded the misery for head coach Graham Arnold, who could be about to make way for the Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, most recently employed by... Iraq.

Australia’s opponents in Jakarta were in the hunt for a third straight Asian Cup title, coached by Ivica Osim, the former Yugoslavia manager who has spent the past year attempting to restore order after the utterly chaotic Zico years. His team were undone, as Zico’s had been in Germany, by moments of madness in defence and a dependence on the indecisive Naohiro Takahara for goals.

Osim’s increasingly unhinged behaviour provided an entertaining, if occasionally frightening, sideshow for the legions of Japanese reporters camped out in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, for the group stage. His interpreter, Zen Chida (a former Belgrade correspondent for the newspaper of the Japanese Communist Party), was reduced to tears by his tirade after Japan drew their opening game with Qatar. “He went nuts,” confided the Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura.

On the eve of the last group game, against Vietnam, Osim implored the gentlemen of the press to end their incessant speculation with an observation to rival Eric Cantona’s seagulls for metaphorical mystique. “We have a saying in my country: It is pointless looking for unborn rabbits in the forest.” It would not have been a ­surprise if the heat and the travel were beginning to take their toll on Osim. The decision to hold the tournament in four countries over the course of just three weeks produced a logistical basket case, forcing some teams to zip across the region as if they had signed up for a cut-price package tour. Saudi Arabia, for example, flew into Indonesia, then on to Vietnam and back to Indonesia, while their opponents in the final, Iraq, had played in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta by the time they lifted the trophy.

The Japanese blamed their semi-final defeat to Saudi Arabia on fatigue and, for once, it was not a hollow excuse. It took them half a day to travel from Hanoi to ­Palem-bang in Indonesia for the game against South Korea, though strangely the Japanese press corps claimed to have made the same journey in about half the time.

None the less, the Asian Football Confederation president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, hailed the tournament as ushering in a new era for Asian football. He may have been right – it was just a shame that so few of the region’s millions of football followers were there to witness the occasion.

Many of the stadiums contained barely enough spectators to drown out the sound of boot against ball, let alone create an atmosphere worthy of a major tournament in the world’s most populous continent. The AFC have vowed to improve attendances for the next Asian Cup, in 2011. But selling Qatar in January to fans from, say, the Far East will surely require some innovative PR.

From WSC 247 September 2007

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