Australia hosted not the best, but the most significant Asian Cup ever
The 2015 Asian Cup was a very good tournament. It could even be argued that it was great, which inevitably leads to talk of whether it was the greatest ever. Such debates are common. Had recent World Cups been more entertaining and exciting, there would have been global arguments as to whether they were number one. It almost happened for Brazil in 2014, only to be stopped after the knockout rounds failed to live up to the early promise.
Yet in Australia, the tournament started well and then just became better. From the opening game with the Socceroos' come from behind win over Kuwait to the final and that dramatic contest with South Korea, there was plenty to like. The final was epic, as finely balanced as Omar Abdulrahman, and then there was that quarter-final between Iran and Iraq which will live long in the memory.
While there were no genuine shocks, there were surprises: the United Arab Emirates dumping defending champions Japan out at the quarterfinal stage, China winning all three group games, Qatar losing all of theirs and South Korea somehow not conceding a tournament goal until just before half-time in the final. Feel-good stories? There were those too: Palestine, Palestine scoring a goal, China adopting a ball boy and Iranian fans igniting the atmoshpere in stadiums across the country to name just a few.
There was genuine talent. Stars that were expected to shine did: Omar Abdulrahman, Son Heung-min, Tim Cahill, Keisuke Honda and Ki Sung-yueng et al. And others that were less heralded a month ago -- Massimo Luongo, Yaser Kasim, Kim Jin-su, Sardar Azmoun, Dhurgham Ismail -- forged continental reputations. The 2015 Asian Cup brought Asia's football scene closer to, not just Australia, but Asia itself. And the attendances were very good with an average of over 20,000 spectators at each game.
That has only happened once before, in China in 2004, the one Asian Cup in modern times at least, that can challenge Australia for the best-ever title. And, if we have to choose -- and fortunately we don't -- then it may be close and it is certainly a matter of opinion but China shades it.
Off the field, it belongs to Australia. It was better organised and the country's multiculturalism provided colour that China could not. It had infinitely more international media coverage -- though the development of the internet since and being an English-speaking country is a major advantage (the standing of China 2004 suffers from receiving a tiny global column inches compared to 2015). And the stars in January were spread more widely around the 16 nations. The weaker teams in 2015 look stronger than their first-hurdle fallers of eleven years previously.
Yet, China had something else as well as attendances around over the 30,000 mark, 94 goals and 17 red cards. The atmosphere in Beijing in the final between the hosts and bitter rival Japan made Sydney on Saturday feel as mild as the temperatures in Australia for much of the tournament. Japan's prime and foreign minister publicly expressed concern at their team's reception.
There was real controversy on the pitch too and not just Koji Nakata's disputed goal in the final. The Samurai Blue upset Jordan in their quarterfinal. Losing the penalty shootout in front of 52,000, Japan persuaded the referee to change ends and then won. Then there were Iran's players, who came to blows on the pitch in the group stage.
In terms of quality, while perhaps the average level was lower eleven years ago, the top sides were tougher. South Korea had been World Cup semifinalists just two years before -- even if the 2004 squad was chosen by committee as there was no head coach in the lead-up to the tournament. Japan may have been missing Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono but still had a mix of silk and steel with Shunsuke Nakamura in his prime, and an ability to grind out a result when things were not going their way.
Iran had a very talented squad: Ali Karimi -- a player whose fortunes on and off the pitch Omar Abdulrahman would do well to study -- at his peak with Ali Daei still, just, a force to be reckoned with; both supported by the mighty Medhi Mahdavikia.
The hosts still had Hai Haidong in attack and A'laa Hubail emerged with surprise packages Bahrain. Current Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov was in his playing pomp and this was Yasser Al Qahtani's coming out party even if Saudi Arabia amazed all by falling at the group stage.
Japan and Iran in the same group with Team Melli only making it in the last eight ahead of Iraq thanks to a 94th minute goal. The knockout stage was electric. The quarterfinal between Uzbekistan and Bahrain saw four goals in the final half hour. And then there was Iran's 4-3 win over South Korea. Four times Iran took the lead (three times thanks to Karimi) and while Korea levelled on three occasions, they could not quite take the game into extra time.
This was the 2004 equivalent of the Iran-Iraq clash last month but a game of higher quality even if not excitement. There was then the epic semifinal between Japan and Bahrain. The Samurai Blue were seconds from defeat but managed to take the game into extra time to win 4-3.
But while 2004 may be best, 2015 should end up meaning more and has more potential to change Asian football for the better. Perhaps it could even lead the tournament to move ahead of the African Cup of Nations in the global standings? Running concurrently in January, the Asian competition looks to be the better of the two even if the African meet still gets more play in the international media. This is partly down to time difference but more to the fact that African players are more prevalent and prominent in the big European leagues and the perception that African football is more exciting and its stars possess more flair. And, of course, the stock of Asia, never the highest even when sending half of its World Cup representatives to the knockout stages in 2002 and 2010, fell after the failures of 2014.
This year is already looking better. The 2015 Asian Cup has put the continent's case forward and if it helps some of the stars in Australia go on to shine regularly on the biggest stages, it will end up being, perhaps not the best, but the most significant Asian Cup ever.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.