An Asian Championship Down Under is hard to get your head around at first glance. But the demarcation is not that strict in football. Consequently, a new chapter in the history of the 50-year-old event was opened with the kick-off of the 16th Continental Championships in Melbourne on January 9. Australia had left the Oceania Confederation in 2005 and joined the Asian Confederation, with the convenient side effect that the “Socceroos” have since then qualified three times in a row for the World Cup finals. It would be aptly fitting if they were to achieve their first major international title ten years later at home.
So far the project is running well for the hosts. The stadiums are full, at least for the Australian matches; the minimum goal of reaching the quarter-finals has been achieved with two clear wins over Kuwait (4-1) and Oman (4-0) -- a feat that should trigger a new impetus in the still viable A League. However, the “Aussies” need to recover something after the horrible year of 2014, when coach Ange Postecoglou’s team recorded just one win in eleven matches, plus an early elimination in the World Cup finals.
Compensation is called for, not only for Australia but also for the other World Cup failures, Japan, South Korea and Iran. All four teams finished bottom of their groups in the first round at the World Cup finals in Brazil, a real setback for Asian football. After all the development, particularly with teams such as Japan and South Korea, had seemed promising since co-hosting the 2002 World Cup finals. The washouts in Brazil had consequences. In Japan, Mexican Javier Aguirre succeeded Italian Alberto Zaccheroni as coach; in South Korea German Uli Stielike replaced Myung-Bo Hong.
For Stielike, who had once experienced times of “rumbling football” in Germany as assistant coach to DFB team manager Erich Ribbeck (1998-2000), it is a new chance to prove himself at a high level. Though the first appearances of his team were not great, they were successful. After two 1-0 wins over Oman and Kuwait, South Korea booked their quarter-final ticket. Important key players in Stielike’s squad are the two Mainz players Joo-Ho Park and Ja-Cheol Koo, and particularly Heung-Min Son of Bayer Leverkusen, the Footballer of the Year in South Korea.
Altogether 13 Bundesliga professionals are competing at the Asia Cup, not something appreciated by the German clubs. Especially 2014 national runners-up Borussia Dortmund, currently languishing in second to last place in the table, who would have preferred to have the services of their super star Shinji Kagawa and goalkeeper Mitch Langerak, who had replaced World Cup champion Roman Weidenfeller as number one shortly before the winter break, for their hopeful resurgence in the new year. For Kagawa it will be a new beginning anyway. The sensitive but exceptional technician wants to regain former brilliance in 2015. Washed-up at Manchester United, he has remained a shadow of his former self on his return to Dortmund. The start with two assists during Japan’s easy 4-0 win over Palestine was a bonus.
This match added a further historical note. The team from Gaza and the West Bank, occupied by Israel, played their first football match on the big stage since their part-recognition by the United Nations. The time for sporting success has not yet come, however. This holds true also for the selection of the Emirate of Qatar. Despite all their wealth, sporting success cannot be bought quickly by the hosts of the 2022 World Cup finals. The team from the Gulf State, strengthened by nine naturalised players, experienced a bad start losing 4-1 to the United Arab Emirates.
The Chinese can also recount how difficult the road to success is. Despite all efforts they have rarely managed to find eleven footballers from a population of 1.3 billion people to form a class team. The “Middle Kingdom” now wants to increase its efforts with a new State programme promoting football in the schools. Previously Italian World Cup champion coach Marcello Lippi had laid valuable groundwork in club football, winning the Asian Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013. This is slowly becoming noticeable with the national team. Headed by Zhang Linpeng, the "Sergio Ramos of China", they managed to progress as one of the eight best teams in Australia.
Linpeng could become the next Chinese export into a major league since VfL Wolfsburg recently signed Xizhe Zhang. The fact that 53 players of the 16 teams now play with clubs outside Asia shows that Asian football in general has improved. In1996, there were just five players contracted outside Asia. The dark shadow of the World Cup finals is not hovering so menacingly after all.