Following Greece’s success over Portugal in Europe and that of Brazil over Argentina in South America, it was Asia’s turn to determine the continental champions over the last two weeks. Given less prominence by the international media due to the lack of stature of the countries involved in major competitions, the games were nevertheless exciting and of a high standard.
China, the hosts, were impressive until the semi-final stage, at which they could only draw 1-1 with Iran in normal time. The game finally saw the host nation come through after a fortuitous 4-3 victory in the penalty shoot-out. Iran underlined the form by taking third place in the tournament with a two-goal burst from veteran Ali Daei in the closing 10 minutes against Bahrain.
In the other half of the draw, Japan battled through to justify their status as favourites for the title by overcoming Bahrain in their semi-final. Both teams played all-out attacking football and Japan found themselves 3-2 down with only five minutes to play and with one player sent off – surely impossible odds? But Nakazawa equalised in the dying seconds and Tamada scored in extra time to secure a place in the final.
As with Euro 2004, two foreign coaches were involved. Dutchman Arie Haan manages the Chinese and Brazilian World Cup winner Zico is in charge of the Japanese side. Last Saturday’s decisive showdown between the traditional sworn enemies took place under tight security arrangements, which did not prejudice a nail-biting finish to these championships. Fukunishi put Japan, the winners in 1992 and 2000, ahead before Li Ming equalised for the hosts in the 31st minute. Nakata gave the defending champions the lead in the second half before Keji Tamada applied the finishing touch in the last minute of regular play.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam will jointly stage the next tournament.