In review: A dazzling decade of Asian men's football

Monday, December 30, 2019
Qatar - 2019 AFC Asian Cup

Kuala Lumpur: It was a decade of change, growth and unforgettable memories for men's football across the world’s most populous continent.

Two first-time AFC Asian Cup winners, four new club champions and a galaxy of new Asian stars meant the 2010s produced countless classic moments and footballing landmarks from both established and developing nations.

With the decade in women’s football covered in a separate article, join for a detailed look back at the key events and advances of the last 10 years in Asian football.

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Three Asian Cups, two new Champions

The AFC Asian Cup grew from 16 to 24 teams and added two new winners in a transformative decade for Asian football’s flagship tournament.

After Iraq ended the previous decade as Asian champions following their stunning 2007 triumph in Southeast Asia, Japan claimed a fourth title in 2011, before Australia and Qatar both carved out pieces of history by claiming glorious maiden Asian titles in 2015 and 2019 respectively.

Hosted by Qatar, the 2011 tournament delivered countless memorable matches, culminating in a star-studded finale between Japan and Australia at Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium.

After 120 high-quality minutes of football, it was Alberto Zaccheroni’s Samurai Blue who prevailed, with Tadanari Lee’s spectacular extra-time volley sealing the title for a side blessed with the likes of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.

Having narrowly missed out on a first Asian title, Australia atoned for their Doha defeat when they achieved a breakthrough win in front of 76,000 roaring fans on home soil four years later.

With ultra-attacking head coach Ange Postecoglou at the helm, the Socceroos piled on 14 goals in six matches, but it was James Troisi’s 105th minute extra-time winner against Korea Republic which proved decisive after Son Heung-min had scored a dramatic injury-time equaliser to silence the crowd just minutes earlier.

Final: Korea Republic vs Australia- AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015

Australia’s other goal scorer in the final, 22-year-old midfielder Massimo Luongo, took the tournament by storm, producing a series of superb performances to earn the title of Most Valuable Player.

The decade’s third and final AFC Asian Cup marked the dawn of a new era, with the competition growing from 16 to 24 teams ahead of the 2019 edition in the United Arab Emirates.

In keeping with the theme, a youthful Qatar stunned everyone by storming to an unexpected, yet thoroughly deserved maiden Asian title with seven consecutive wins, 19 goals scored and only one conceded.

AFC Asian Cup 2019: Qatar lift the trophy

It was a pair of 22-year-olds who stole the limelight, with striker Almoez Ali netting a tournament record nine goals, while Akram Afif laid on 10 assists as Felix Sanchez’s side swept all before them before beating Japan 3-1 in the final in Abu Dhabi.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup was notable for the performances of nations from outside Asia’s regular tournament contenders, with Vietnam, Kyrgyz Republic, Thailand and India all achieving decade-defining results.

10 years of stars: Asia’s world-beaters

The past 10 years have seen a galaxy of Asian stars shine brighter than ever, with several players from the continent establishing themselves as world class players on some of the game’s biggest stages.

Korea Republic star Park Ji-sung already had three English titles to his name when the decade began, but he was among the first Asian players to win a major European club title in the 2010s when he lifted the 2010-11 Premier League trophy with Manchester United.

While Park starred in England, Shinji Kagawa burst onto the scene in Germany, winning successive Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund in 2011 and 2012, before becoming the first Japanese player to win the Premier League after joining Manchester United ahead of the 2012-13 season.

Kagawa’s Samurai Blue teammate Shinji Okazaki also won the English title during Leceister City’s remarkable 2015-16 campaign, while countryman Keisuke Honda established himself as one of Asian football megastars of the 2010s, winning silverware in Russia for CSKA Moscow, before joining Italian giants AC Milan in 2014.

Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun was another Asian forward to star in Russia.

Still only 24, Azmoun has bagged over 60 goals for Rubin Kazan, FC Rostov and Zenit St. Petersburg, winning the Russian Premier League with the latter in season 2018-19; a title won by Uzbekistan’s Vitaly Denisov with Lokomotiv Moscow a year prior.

Despite beginning the decade as a 30-year-old, Tim Cahill remained Australia’s most recognisable footballing export for most of the 2010s, appearing for major clubs throughout the globe, scoring an unforgettable FIFA World Cup volley against the Netherlands, and notching a staggering 31 of his 50 international goals from 2010 onwards.

.@Tim_Cahill made his final appearance for Australia today, leaving us all with many great memories of him in a @Socceroos jersey 🇦🇺

Who could forget this goal against the Netherlands at Brazil 2014? 💥

— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 20, 2018

But while several Asian players left their mark on the world’s top leagues, few, if any, had the impact of Korea Republic forward Son, who starred throughout the decade for clubs in both Germany and England.

Having joined Hamburg SV’s youth academy in the final weeks of 2009, Son went on to establish himself as an elite forward on the global stage, scoring over 120 goals for Hamburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham Hotspur and winning the AFC International Player of the Year on three occasions.

Son became the second Korean of the 2010s, after Park, to play in a UEFA Champions League final, in 2019, the same year he was nominated for the Ballon d’Or, marking the 27-year-old as a shining light of the Asian game.

Growing the game: A decade of expansion

The expanded AFC Asian Cup was one of many examples of the game’s growth during the 2010s, with both club and international football experiencing a game-changing increase in opportunities for development.

The first 24-team AFC Asian Cup featured nine teams which had failed to qualify for the previous edition in Australia, including three – Kyrgyz Republic, Yemen and the Philippines – who had never appeared in Asia’s top competition.

The new format also saw an increase in meaningful competitive action for teams who missed out on the showpiece event, with the likes of Tajikistan, Chinese Taipei and Myanmar all within one positive result of reaching the Finals.

This new era of inclusion was part of a wider overhaul of Asia’s qualification path for both the AFC Asian Cup and the FIFA World Cup, with the group stage of World Cup qualifying expanding from 20 to 40 teams ahead of the Asian Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup Russia 2018.

For many nations, the expansion has created the opportunity to host the Continent’s biggest national teams in competitive home-and-away fixtures, with India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia among the teams tapping into their enormous support base on a meaningful and regular basis.

The decade of Asian football expansion has also been visible in the club game, with clubs from several nations achieving landmark results in both the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup competitions.

While the 2010 AFC Champions League featured a total of 37 clubs from 15 member associations, the 2019 edition included 51 clubs from 22 nations, with the AFC Cup field growing from 31 to 43 in the same timespan.

Clubs such as Malaysia’s Johor Darul Tazim and Hong Kong’s Eastern SC became the first from their respective nations to qualify for the group stage, with the latter’s Chan Yuen-ting making history as the first female head coach to lead a men’s side in a major continental championship.

Asian club football’s growth is set to continue into the 2020s, with the AFC Champions League group stage to expand to 40 teams ahead of the 2021 edition of the continent’s most prestigious club football competition.

A decade of firsts: History-making clubs

While the sheer number of clubs participating in Asia’s top competitions grew, so too did the number of teams who broke through to achieve landmark successes on the continental stage

Clubs, countries and entire regions tasted continental glory for the first time in a decade which saw Asia’s two major trophies shared far and wide.

Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf got the ball rolling in 2011, when their 2-1 AFC Cup final win over Al Kuwait made them the first club from former-Soviet Central Asia to win a major Asian club title.

Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande made their own history two years later, becoming the first club from the world’s most populous nation to become Asian champions in the AFC Champions League era, and only the second in history following Liaoning FC’s 1990 Asian Club Championship title.

Guangzhou’s aggregate win over FC Seoul in the 2013 AFC Champions League final attracted tens of millions of television viewers and saw FIFA World Cup-winning boss Marcello Lippi claim a maiden Asian title.

AFC Champions League 2013 Final: Guangzhou Evergrande vs FC Seoul

The firsts continued in 2014, when Western Sydney Wanderers beat Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal 1-0 on aggregate to become the first Australian club to win the AFC Champions League, doing so just two years after their first match as a professional club.

Malaysia’s continental breakthrough came in 2015, when Johor Daurl Tazim defeated Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol to become the first club from Southeast Asia to win the AFC Cup, while Iraq’s Air Force Club would go on to claim an unprecedented three successive titles in the competition from 2016 to 2018.

AFC Cup 2015 Finals: FC Istiklol v Johor Darul Ta’zim

Al Hilal closed out the decade as Asian champions after their 2019 AFC Champions League triumph, becoming the first West Asian team to win three Asian titles after suffering painful defeats in 2014 and 2017.

Asian clubs also achieved breakthrough results at the FIFA Club World Cup, with Japan’s Kashima Antlers reaching the final in 2016, and Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates following suit two years later, with both sides falling to valiant defeats against Real Madrid.

#ACLFinal 2019 - 2nd Leg: Urawa Red Diamonds vs Al Hilal SFC

Challenging the world: Asia on the world stage

While no senior men’s side scaled the lofty heights of Korea Republic’s 2002 FIFA World Cup semi-final appearance, the 2010s saw a range of Asian teams compete alongside the world’s very best.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa promised much as both Japan and Korea Republic advanced from the group stage, but the East Asian duo were both eliminated by South American opponents in the Round of 16, with no Asian side advancing to the knockout stage in Brazil four years later.

Japan carried Asian hopes through to the Round of 16 in Russia in 2018, only to suffer a heartbreaking last-minute defeat to Belgium, while Korea Republic were eliminated in the group stage despite a stunning 2-0 win over defending champions Germany.

Those three second round appearances were as good as it got for Asian sides at the FIFA World Cup, but teams from the continent became regular challengers in global youth finals, as well as in the small-sided disciplines of futsal and beach soccer.

Iraq did the Continent proud when they eliminated a string of international heavyweights on the way to the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup semi-finals in Turkey, while a Korea Republic side inspired by Lee Kang-in charged all the way to the final of the 2019 edition in Poland.

Islamic Republic of Iran lit up the Asian futsal scene in the 2010s, winning three AFC Futsal Championships and finishing third at the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup, where they famously defeated both Brazil and Portugal in a stunning month in Colombia.

Iran also excelled in the world of Beach Soccer, finishing the decade as the second-ranked team in the world, and earning a best-ever finish of third in the 2017 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the Bahamas.

Japan would follow in their footsteps two years later in Paraguay, reaching the global semi-finals, with only a penalty shootout defeat to eventual winners Portugal ending their bid for a maiden title.

Photos: FIFA via Getty Images, AFP, AFC

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