We’re now entering the final few days of the Group Stage of the Asian Cup 2015. Although there are sure to be even more thrills and spills in the knock out stage of the tournament, the competition can already be considered a success with the Socceroo’s performance in their first two games giving locals plenty of hope that they could secure their first major international football trophy and some larger than expected crowd attendance figures across the board. When you’re drawing over 20,000 spectators for Iran vs Qatar, you’ve got to be pretty happy with the level of fan engagement.
Personally, I’ve immersed myself in the competition these past eight days and I’ve been to five matches at Suncorp Stadium and watched about a dozen more on television. Here are some thoughts from the Group Stage of the competition.
The Games I’ve Seen Live
China 1 Saudi Arabia 0
Jordan 0 Iraq 1
China 2 Uzbekistan 1
Japan 1 Iraq 0
South Korea 1 Australia 0
UAE vs Iran
Quarter Final: Australia vs China
The World Game
Like America, Australia can be rather isolationist when it comes to their sport with rugby league and AFL being the most popular football codes in the country. These are sports that have very limited appeal overseas. Even within Australia, AFL is predominantly played in Victoria and rugby league’s heartland is in New South Wales and Queensland. Both codes have made half hearted attempts to broaden their appeal but they having nothing on how entrenched football is globally.
One of the most entertaining parts of the Asian Cup has been watching the various communities come together to support their country. Rambunctious Saudis banging their drums, an army of Chinese supporters chanting their hero’s names, even the small pockets of Uzbekistan fanatics urging their side on left an impression.
One of my favourite experiences when watching a live game is seeing two sets of supporters verbally sparring, competing to make more noise than their rivals, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ to the ebb and flow of the contest. To that end, my favourite games that I saw during the Group Stage were China vs Saudi Arabia and China vs Uzbekistan.
In China vs Saudi Arabia, the two sides were locked in an even contest until Saudi Arabia made a break in the second half, their striker clean through on goal. He was brought down by a desperate defender and a penalty was duly awarded. The Saudis celebrated as though they won the game. The Chinese goalkeeper asked the advice of the ball boy which way he should dive. The ball boy gave him the right advice and the Chinese keeper saved the penalty. Ten minutes later, China scored off a free kick down the other end to send their supporters into raptures. The ball boy briefly became a national hero in China. The atmosphere at the game was electric. Credit to the Chinese active supporters for giving away free ‘GO CHINA’ shirts to anyone who asked for one. It turned Suncorp into a sea of red which created a great visual for the viewing audience.
China vs Uzbekistan was fantastic too. The Uzbekistanis took the lead early in the game after a cruel deflection saw a shot from outside the box loop over the Chinese keeper and into the back of the net. Uzbekistan looked to be the stronger side but they began to noticeably wilt in the hot, humid Brisbane summer. By half time, they looked exhausted. In the second half, the Chinese rallied and finally cracked the stubborn Uzbekistan defence, scoring two goals in quick succession. I can still remember how the Chinese supporters got behind their team. China has not had a lot of success in the Asian Cup and prior to the start of the tournament, they would have considered getting beyond the Group Stages a good result. They’ve shown a lot of character in the two games I saw and the fitness to deal with the heat. Now they have a chance to upset the hosts, having drawn a quarter final against the Socceroos in Brisbane.
The Atmosphere At Socceroos Games
Active Supporter Groups are the heart and soul of football games and a key point of difference to other footballing codes. The die hards that bring the tifos, that wave the flags, stand all game and sing for their team, they are ones that make the atmosphere.
In Australia, we have a problem at our national games. There is no atmosphere. The FFA has not only failed to engage the leaders in the fan community groups that would lead the chants, in some cases, they’ve actively deterred them. No effort is made to reserve sections of the stadium for fanatics to gather together and get organized for leading chants and subsequently, they get diluted by the casual fans who outnumber them ten to one. As a result, you get situations like on Saturday night at Suncorp where 2,000 Korean supporters who all sat together in the same bay were making more noise than 50,000 Australians who didn’t have anyone to lead them in chanting for their team. It’s a point of frustration that the FFA seem annoyingly indifferent to.
The Socceroos faced a big problem in 2014 in the lead up to the World Cup in Brazil. The players from the Golden Generation of 2006 (Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer etc) were either slowing down or retiring and there was no one there to replace them. Two short sighted coaching appointments by the FFA – Pim Verbeek and Holger Oscieck – created a situation where the national coaches had no interest in developing young players. Their only mandate was to ensure the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup. So both coaches did that as conservatively as possible, playing the same stars from 2006 for as long as possible.
When Ange Postecoglou took over from Holger Oscieck, he had a mountain to climb. He would have the rebuild the squad from scratch, his team had a hellishly difficult World Cup draw and he didn’t really have the luxury of inheriting veterans that were willing to give up their spot and support a youth movement. It’s a sad blemish on the otherwise sparkling careers of players like Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer that not only did they appear unwilling to step aside when the time was right, they have both been vocal in criticizing younger players for being ‘lazy’ and ‘not hungry enough’.
Despite some moments of magic in the World Cup, particularly against Holland, the Socceroos had a torrid time in 2014, winning just one game out of twelve and falling outside the top 100 in the FIFA World rankings.
I still personally believe that Ange Postecoglou is the right man to lead Australia out of the footballing wilderness but he needs time and the pressure was on to deliver an Asian Cup performance that the country to get behind. A poor result and its possible Postecoglou could face the axe. Before the Asian Cup kicked off, the Socceroos had scored 13 goals under Ange Postecoglou, eight by the evergreen Tim Cahill, and just one goal from anyone else in open play. The concern before the tournament was clear – could Tim Cahill carry the team on his back? Or would someone else step up for their country?
It took eight minutes into the opening game of the tournament for the pressure to take its toll. From an innocuous looking corner, Kuwait worked a set play that drew Cahill and Franjic out of position, allowing for their striker Hussain Fadhel to slip in and score. Disaster!
Fortunately, the Socceroos team spirit finally had a chance to flourish in Melbourne and the side were able to show what they were made of. A mazy run from youngster Mass Luongo found Tim Cahill in the box and the Socceroos legend fired home to level the score. Then on the stroke of half time, Luongo went one better, rising in the air to meet an Ivan Franjic cross and knock it into the back of the net, sending the Socceroos into the sheds at half time with the lead. They came out firing in the second half and ultimately put Kuwait away 4-1 after goals from captain Mile Jedinak and James Troisi. In the second game, they carried over that same momentum, trouncing Oman 4-0. Eight goals in two goals. From eight different scorers. The Asian Cup dream was alive.
At Suncorp, they were brought back down to Earth in a stinky hot evening in Brisbane. The air was hot, humid and still. Suncorp was like an oven. The whole place was infested with moths which kept landing in people’s beer. Postecoglou opted to rest some of his star players with Cahill and Kruse on the bench and Burns and Juric getting a start. It wasn’t to be the Socceroos night. They went a goal down on the half hour when Lee Jeong-hyeop skipped past the Socceroos defence and slid home a goal from close range. The Socceroos responded by creating plenty of chances but they couldn’t find the back of the net. The loss means Korea finishes top of the table and Socceroos play China in Brisbane on Thursday. Should they advance, they will likely play Japan in the semis. One game sooner than they probably would have liked.
- FIFA is notorious for their strict control over advertising representation at international tournaments and the Asian Cup is no different. Every stadium has had its sponsor name removed and been given a generic title. The prize for the funniest generic stadium name that FIFA came up with must surely go to Etihad Stadium in Melbourne which was rebranded as Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
It’s pretty crazy the extent that FIFA go to to ensure that only their selected sponsors are visible at the stadium. Non-sponsor beer has their logo blackened out (see image above) so XXX Gold simply becomes Gold Beer. Crazier still, even the televisions in the stadium that show the game when you’re lining up at the concession stand have the manufacturer logo blacked out. Can’t have Sony TVs on display when Samsung is a major sponsor.
- It’s a shame that Adelaide and Perth aren’t getting any games but apparently thats because their state governments provided absolutely zero funding towards the tournament. Given the stifling heat though, maybe its best there werent any games in Perth.
- Abdul Rahman has been a revelation for me in this tournament and I wouldn’t be surprised if UAE claimed an upset over one of the tournament heavyweights.
- Qatar have been an absolute joke. They were thrashed 4-1 in their opening game against UAE and lost the following game against Iran. I’m still bitter about the World Cup and I delighted in their poor showing in this tournament.
- The FFA really need to see how they can reach out to some of these communities that are turning up in their thousands to watch Iran, China and South Korea etc. Can they convert these casual football fans and turn them into A-League fans?
- Japan have won two from two in this tournament but look really lazy in their approach so far
- Disappointingly, the Japanese supporters that turned up for the game in Brisbane against Iraq were very quiet
- The most vocal supporters I have seen live have been the Chinese
- The most vocal supporters I have seen on TV have been the Iranians
- The tournament so far has not had a single draw
- It was nice to see the minnows – Palestine and North Korea – both score a goal. Palestine’s goal against Jordan was their first ever goal in the competition and North Korea’s goal against Saudi Arabia was their first in 23 years of Asian Cup football.
- The tournament hasn’t really had any major upsets. Yet.
- It’s pretty hard to pick a favourite at this stage. Perhaps Iran and Japan?