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Kuala Lumpur: Thursday, May 25 marks three years to the day since Japan claimed their first-ever AFC Women’s Asian Cup after dethroning defending champions Australia with a 1-0 victory in the final in Ho Chi Minh City.

Azusa Iwashimizu scored the all-important goal as the Nadeshiko ended a 37-year continental drought to add Asia’s premier prize to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup they had won three years earlier in Germany. 

A new dawn

The tournament also marked huge strides forward for women’s football on the continent as Jordan became the first team from the West to participate.

And with the competition doubling up as the qualification event for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, Thailand claimed fifth place to become the Southeast Asian country’s first-ever representatives at an 11-a-side FIFA World Cup.

So near but yet so far

Japan had long since been amongst the strongest teams on the continent but, after China’s stranglehold on the tournament ended in 1999 following seven successive titles, they had failed to take advantage of what had developed into an increasingly open event.

A runners-up finish to DPR Korea in 2001 preceded four straight semi-final losses, including a 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Australia in 2010. But after being crowned world champions a year later, the Nadeshiko would go to Vietnam as favourites.

Asian and world champions collide

Norio Sasaki’s side were handed the chance to avenge their loss to Australia, though, after being drawn in Group A alongside the Matildas, hosts Vietnam and Jordan.

The pair played out a 2-2 draw in their opening game, before going on to claim back-to-back wins over Vietnam and Jordan as Japan pipped Australia to top spot by virtue of a superior goal difference.

Vietnam’s 3-1 defeat of Jordan in the tournament's curtain raiser, meanwhile, ultimately saw the hosts secure their passage to the fifth place play-off and a chance to qualify for the Women’s World Cup.

Korea edge China

A similar scenario played out in Group B, where continental heavyweights Korea Republic and China would win their first two games against Myanmar and Thailand before a scoreless draw in their final first round outing saw the Koreans progress on top of the standings.
After successive defeats, Thailand and Myanmar still went into the final group game with plenty riding on it and Thai captain Sritala Duangnapa scored the decisive goal to claim a 2-1 victory and set up a winner-takes-all encounter with Vietnam.

Southeast Asians clash for a date with destiny

Arguably the most important match of the tournament saw hosts Vietnam take on Thailand in the fifth place play-off in front of 18,000 spectators with a spot at the following year's Women’s World Cup up for grabs.

And it was Thailand who prevailed as Kanjana Sung-Ngeon’s second-half brace proved too much for Vietnam to come back from despite a late Nguyen Thi Tuyet Dung goal as the tie finished 2-1.

Past masters meet present power

A mouthwatering match-up between eight-time continental champions China and the new force of Asian football Japan in the last four promised much and delivered accordingly.

After a scoreless first half, AFC Hall of Famer Homare Sawa gave the Nadeshiko the lead early in the second half, only for Li Dongna’s penalty to draw the Steel Roses level with 10 minutes remaining.

Then, deep into added time of extra-time, Iwashimizu netted one of the most dramatic goals in the competition's history to take Japan to a first final since 2001.

Matildas march on

Katrina Gorry gave Australia the lead shortly after the interval in the second semi-final before the tournament’s joint top scorer Park Eun-sun drew the East Asians level from the spot.

But Elise Kellond-Knight’s goal 13 minutes from time saw the Matildas advance to a second successive final following a 2-1 win.

The Koreans ultimately finished fourth as Yang Li’s stoppage-time goal helped China to a 2-1 victory in the third place play-off.

A jinx is broken

The final pitted Japan against holders Australia with Sasaki’s team aiming to add the continental championship to their global crown.

And it would be Iwashimizu, with her second vital contribution in two games, who wrote her name into Japanese footballing folklore as the defender rose highest at the back post to head home a Rumi Utsugi cross after 28 minutes for the only goal of the game.

“I thought to win the AFC Women’s Asian Cup was one of my biggest projects, so the players did a great job,” said Sasaki. “We came here to Vietnam with one aim: to win the tournament and end Japan’s jinx. We’ve done that, so it’s mission accomplished.”

Three-time AFC Women’s Player of the Year Aya Miyama was named the competition’s MVP after a string of impressive performances from the captain.

“As a team we really wanted to win this title,” said the midfield playmaker. “This is the best feeling I have now, after all the effort we have done in this campaign.” 

What it meant

Japan may have finally ended their trophyless run at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup but Thailand’s feat was just as significant for football on the continent.

The Nadeshiko’s Women’s World Cup victory three years earlier had opened up an extra place for Asia at the 2015 tournament in Canada, which allowed Thailand to become the first nation from Southeast Asia to appear at the tournament.

Next up for the top female teams is the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan, where the Philippines will have their first-ever representatives at the highest level of continental football. 

Two other ASEAN sides – Thailand and Vietnam – will join the four semi-finalists from 2014 and the hosts as the tournament takes place in West Asia for the first time.

Photos: Lagardère Sports & AFP