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Asian Cup enters new era with Iraq win
Iraqs inspiring success in this years Asian Cup was not only a victory for the people of a country ravaged by war but also a major coup for the tournament organisers. The Asian Cup has always struggled for external recognition but the extraordinary events of the past three weeks have catapulted the tournament into a new era.
No-one in their right mind expects the Asian Cup will ever match the hype and glamour of the European Championship or the romance and skill of the Copa America but the tournament can no longer be ignored.
Iraqs victory in the face of incredible hardship and the unifying effect it had on their war-weary citizens captured the imagination of the sporting world.
It was a modern day fairytale (and it surely won’t be long before it gets the Hollywood blockbuster treatment) yet in many ways it was just the icing on the cake.
The inclusion of Australia and their English Premier League players, the increasing number of Asians plying their trade in Europe and the influence of crafty Brazilian coaches have not only raised standards but given the competition real credibility.
The Asian Cup rose from humble beginnings but it is only in the last 15 years that the event has really started to take off. The first three tournaments, in 1956, 1960 and 1964, were contested by just four countries. As recently as 1992, there were only eight countries involved but the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) realised it had to increase the number of teams if it wanted to be taken seriously.
The competition was expanded to 12 teams for the 1996 and 2000 editions, then to 16 teams for the 2004 and 2007 tournaments. While the first tournament was contested by South Korea, Israel, Hong Kong and Vietnam, todays major players include China, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and now Iraq.
The next tournament will be held in Qatar in 2011 and after the events of 2007, the competition just to qualify promises to fierce. The AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam believes the Asian Cup is now ready to take its place on the football calendar as a major event.
“The Asian Cup from now on will be different from what we’ve seen in the past, he told a news conference in Jakarta. In terms of organisation, in terms of popularity and in terms of standard. This is my promise to you.”
No Asian country has ever won the World Cup but it only seems like a matter of time. South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002 and Australia made the second round in Germany last year, losing to eventual champions Italy on a dodgy penalty.
Perhaps the best example of the improving standards of Asian football is that neither of those countries made the final this time. Australia were bundled out in the quarter-finals by Japan while South Korea lost to Iraq on penalties in the semi-finals.
Yet the performances of Asias biggest and richest teams had nothing to do with this turning point in the Asian Cups history. Instead, it was the incredible success story of a team no-one thought had any chance that ultimately caught the worlds attention.
Julian Linden, Jakarta