Japan dominate, Iraq delight
Kuala Lumpur: East Asian nations had little success at the AFC Asian Cup in the aftermath of Korea Republic’s back-to-back title wins in the competition’s formative years. However, after a period of west Asian dominance, the tide was about to turn as Japan emerged as the continent’s dominant force.
Japan’s AFC Asian Cup win on home soil in 1992 might have come as a surprise, but on hindsight it proved to be a precursor of a period of superiority whose roots lay in the advent of professionalism in the east Asian nation and a remarkable attention to detail.
Until the early 1990s the Samurai Blue had been a minor player at the AFC Asian Cup but, with the arrival of the J.League in 1993 and the dawn of an era that brought with it rapid development at all levels, Japanese football was on the rise.
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By the time the 2000 AFC Asian Cup started in Lebanon, the Japanese had already made their debut appearance at the Finals of the FIFA World Cup in France in 1998 while their youth team had reached the final of the 1999 FIFA U20 World Cup.
With the country’s co-hosting of the FIFA World Cup with Korea Republic on the horizon, Japanese football was gathering an impressive head of steam.
Under Frenchman Philippe Troussier, Japan’s attempt to establish themselves as the preeminent power of Asian football was in full swing. A 4-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia in their opening game not only highlighted their talents, but cost Saudi coach Milan Macala his job.
An 8-1 win over Uzbekistan was to follow before victories over Iraq and China in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively set up a rematch with the Saudis in the final at Beirut’s Sports City Stadium.
Now under the command of Nasser Al Johar, the Saudis put up a strong challenge – and missed the chance to go ahead when Hamza Idris missed from the penalty spot – before Shigeyoshi Mochizuki scored the only goal of the game to give Japan a second AFC Asian Cup.
This win, though, was not to occur in isolation.
Four years later, the Japanese repeated the feat. With Brazilian coach Zico at the helm, Japan saw off hosts China PR to claim a third AFC Asian Cup title in four tournaments and join Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran as the competition’s most successful nations.
A third straight title for Japan was on the agenda as the teams gathered in Southeast Asia for an historic AFC Asian Cup in 2007.
But, from the decision to co-host the tournament across Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia through to the event’s emotional denouement, there was little that was not remarkable about this particular edition of the competition.
Japan’s challenge ended at the semi-final stage when the Saudis extracted revenge for their 2000 loss while Iraq were mounting a fairytale challenge for the trophy.
Having defeated newcomers Australia in the group phase, Jorvan Vieira’s side were on a roll with striker Younis Mahmoud in devastating form.
A penalty shootout win over Korea Republic took the Iraqis into their first-ever AFC Asian Cup final, where Mahmoud’s stunning header secured an unlikely title win for a country that had been torn apart by war and violence over the preceding decade.
As remarkable as Iraq’s success was, however, it served as a four-year pause in Japan’s impressive accumulation of Asian titles. By Qatar 2011, the country had claimed a fourth AFC Asian Cup crown in just six editions.
This time, though, the Japanese were made to work for the title. A tight battle in the group phase with Jordan and Syria was followed by a narrow escape against hosts Qatar in the quarter-finals before an epic clash with Korea Republic in the semi-finals set up a meeting with Australia.
The Socceroos, having learned the lessons from their debut showing in 2007, dominated the final and were unfortunate not to seal the win in normal time, but that inability to kill the game left Tadanari Lee to score the only goal in extra-time and earn Japan a record-breaking fourth title.
With Australia hosting the Finals for the first time in 2015 – less than a decade after becoming an AFC member – the trophy was destined to remain in the eastern half of the continent. The identity of the champions, though, was to change.
With Japan slipping out in the quarter-finals at the hands of the United Arab Emirates, the final was eventually contested by the hosts and Korea Republic, who were seeking to end a drought stretching back to 1960.
Massimo Luongo gave Australia the lead in front of a sold out Stadium Australia only for Son Heung-min to rescue the Koreans in injury time with an equalising goal that took the game into extra-time.
However, James Troisi restored the Socceroos’ lead late in the first period and the Australians hung on to put another new name – becoming the eighth different nation to claim the title – on the AFC Asian Cup trophy.
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