Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Asian teams do enough to reaffirm status in 2010

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SINGAPORE: Asian teams did enough to reaffirm the region's potential during a World Cup year with some convincing performances by national sides, while the AFC Champions League grew in stature.

In South Africa, two of the four Asian Football Confederation sides made the last 16, and they did it in historical fashion with neither South Korea or Japan ever going beyond the group phase on foreign soil before.

Japan went into the tournament under a dark cloud after losing four games in a row, but they left with their dignity restored after beating Denmark 3-1 and Cameroon 1-0, and only narrowly losing 1-0 to the Netherlands.

It put them into the knockout rounds and they were unlucky to fall 5-3 on penalties to Paraguay after the game ended in a scoreless draw.

South Korea also won plaudits by beating Greece 2-0 before crashing 4-1 to Argentina and then drawing 2-2 with Nigeria.

It was enough to see them into the knockouts rounds where squandered chances saw them lose 2-1 to Uruguay.

While they shined, Australia, who made the last 16 in Germany 2006, flopped, ultimately losing out on a place in the knockout stage on goal difference.

North Korea, at their first World Cup in 44 years, were the one team truly out of their depth.

They put up an impressive performance in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil but were routed 7-0 by Portugal and 3-0 by the Ivory Coast.

All four teams will be in action again at the Asian Cup in Qatar in January, a dry-run for the 2022 World Cup that was awarded to the Gulf nation by FIFA this month.

On a more domestic front, AFC president Mohammed bin Hammam, in his second term in charge, continued to push forward his agenda of promoting club football.

"You can take the game forward by developing club football, not by developing the national team," he told reporters recently.

"When you improve the standard of club football, the game at national level improves automatically. That's what AFC is looking to do in the next four years."

The ruling body has ploughed plenty of time and money into making the AFC Champion's League a quality competition and it provided some thrills and spills this year.

South Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa won the title, edging Iran's Zobahan 3-1 in a final played in Tokyo, handing them a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup where the exited to Inter Milan at the semi-final stage.

Seongnam are South Korea's most successful club, with seven K-League titles. They reached the AFC Champions League final in 2004 and the semi-finals in 2007.

Zobahan though was the surprise package, knocking out some of Asia's biggest clubs enroute to the final, including holders Pohang Steelers, Uzbek champions Bunyodkor and two-time winners Al Ittihad.

It was a third victory for South Korea, following triumphs by Jeonbuk Motors in 2006 and Pohang Steelers in 2009, while Japan and Saudi Arabia have won twice and the United Arab Emirates once.

"Our role model in improving football is the European Champions League. We want to be their main rivals," said Bin Hammam in explaining his vision.

"We have got a lot of help from Europeans, especially the English Premier League. The experts in EPL have spoken to us and shared with us their knowledge. We are utilising their help."

Meanwhile, Australia's Sasa Ognenovski, who plays for Seongnam Ilhwa, was named the AFC player of the year, while Japan's Takeshi Okada scooped the prize for coach of the year.

2010 also witnessed the Asian Games, where Japan's women won their first ever title, a feat that was matched by their men.

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