Talkabout - Soccer

Mile Jedinak (Australia)
vs Keisuke Honda (Japan),
in Osaka, November 2014
The Asian Cup will be the biggest football tournament Australia
has staged – and one of the major sporting events of the year.
Glenn Cullen reports on what’s in store this month.
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Socceroos vs Qatar,
November 2014:
Australia’s Tim Cahill
heading for goal (left);
midfielder Mark
Milligan (below)
Football Confederation in 2006, there was an unwritten guarantee:
that the game would never be the same again. For so long the interlopers of the world code, the Socceroos now had a new region to call
home. The shift from Oceania meant more meaningful matches,
rich tournaments and the real prospect of regular World Cup
qualification. The entree was tasty enough. Qualifying for that year’s
World Cup after beating Uruguay, Australia downed Japan in its
first game and made the second round before losing to eventual
champions Italy. The toast of the region, the Aussies were expected
to make a serious statement at their first Asian Cup the next year.
What transpired was a brutal lesson in regional football smarts.
In the tropical heat of South-East Asia, the Socceroos were spared
some blushes with an injury time draw against Oman before getting
demolished by Iraq, 3-1. Qualifying for the quarter-finals on goal
difference the team was bundled out by Japan. Eight years on and
there’s still no title, which the home team desperately hopes to rectify
as it hosts the Asian Cup for the first time starting on January 9.
“We didn’t get off to the best start. The end result wasn’t great, but
I think it did show to Australian football how difficult it is to do well
in the Asian Cup,” reflects defensive midfielder Mark Milligan, who’s
expected to be one of the few Australian players to back up from that
inaugural squad eight years ago. “There’s a lot of good teams and
they have come a long way since then. If we want to be a powerhouse
in Asia, this is a competition we need to be successful in.”
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The 2011 experience in Qatar was much better, but the major
trophy cabinet remains bare, with the Socceroos going down to
archrivals Japan 1-0 in the final. So when Milligan talks of a “need
to” do well in this tournament it’s more like a “have to”. While the
new-look Socceroos performed above expectation in their three
losses in a tough group at the 2014 World Cup, the bar rises as the
talent pool becomes shallower in the one-confederation tournament.
Indeed, Football Federation Australia Chairman Frank Lowy, the
billionaire shopping-centre magnate who is used to success, has
made it clear: the Socceroos should be the best team in Asia.
Far from downplaying his expectations, Melbourne Victory’s
Milligan, who’s had his share of experience playing with and against
Asian opposition (stints with Shanghai Shenhua in China and JEF
United Chiba in Japan), embraces the challenge. “I don’t think it is
a bad thing. I know with the public and even within our group, PHOTOGRAPHY: GETTY IMAGES
[making the final] is the minimum expectation. But that’s where we
want to be as a football nation. We don’t want to always go in being
the underdogs. It needs to be about results as much as performances,
and now is a good time to start.”
The second-oldest continental football championships in the
world, the Asian Cup features 16 countries and 32 games and will be
played over 23 days in Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and
Melbourne. The final is on January 31. It will be the biggest football
tournament Australia has staged and one of the major sporting
events of the year.
While much focus in the code tends to be on the traditional power
bases in Europe and South America, the scope of the game in Asia
is extraordinary. The region has a population of 3.7 billion, growing
professional leagues in China and India, and 47 member associations
– from the oil-rich gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and Oman to
traditional strongholds such as South Korea and Japan as well as
four former Soviet Republics.
With the diverse range of countries comes radically different
playing styles and – as nascent A-League club the Western
Sydney Wanderers showed by winning the Asian Champions
League club competition last November – the unexpected is
never too far away if you have a good coach and a playing group
that believes in itself.
“I think we’re on the right track,” says Belgium-based Australian
goalkeeper Mat Ryan, who has had the unenviable task of taking
over from the legendary veteran Mark Schwarzer.
“We want to win every game we play; it can be frustrating when
we don’t because this is a results-based game. Hopefully, we can take
advantage of home support and be crowned champions.”
Qatar’s Abdukarim Hassan
(left) and Australia’s Chris
Herd, Qatar, November 2014
Teams to watch
South Korea
Has struggled after a
promising World Cup
and still relies heavily
on Tim Cahill’s aerial
dominance. The home
turf will prove a big
advantage. The scene
is certainly set for
some new Socceroos
stars to emerge.
Still haunts Australian
fans after dumping
the Socceroos at
the 1998 World Cup
qualifiers. Consistent
Cup performers and
three-time champions
marshalled well by
veteran midfielder
Javad Nekounam.
Already developing
a key regional rivalry
with Australia. The
titleholders had a
disappointing World
Cup, but with quality
attacking players such
as Kaisuke Honda and
Shinji Kagawa will be
a major threat.
Arguably the
strongest team in Asia
in the 2000s and yet
the Taegeuk Warriors
haven’t made a Cup
final since 1988. They’ll
miss the now-retired
great Park Ji-sung, but
will still be one of the
teams to beat.
Trouble at home
has often made life
difficult for the
national team, but
can match it with any
country on their day.
Won the tournament
in 2007 and could
surprise here with a
consistent lead-in.
Looking to impress
with the World Cup
coming up on home
soil in 2022. They
showed just how
much they have
improved by knocking
Australia over in a
friendly in October
last year.
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