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Jan 6, 2011

Traditional powers eye return to glory

Asia can be a fast-moving place. Just two years after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was formed in Manila in 1954, the Asian Cup kicked off in Hong Kong. For much of its history, the continent's showpiece football event has been ruled by the traditional four powerhouses of Asian football.

South Korea ruled the early roost; Iran took the seventies, with Saudi Arabia and Japan dominating since 1984. The three eras were all ended by short interregnums from Israel, Kuwait and Iraq.

This quartet has claimed 11 out of 14 tournaments and were South Korea to win the 15th edition in Doha on January 29, it would provide the pleasing symmetry of all four having three victories to their name. That is in the future however, a look back at the competition shows how much Asian football has developed over the decades.

Koreans make early running

That original four-nation meet in Hong Kong was very different to the high-profile and slick 16-team operation that is beamed around the world these days. South Korea had appeared at the World Cup in Switzerland two years previously only to concede 16 goals in its two games. But the Taeguk Warriors found Asia much more to their liking - the absence of Hungary probably helped - and topped the group to win the trophy

A look at the other three contenders shows how much Asian football, and the continent itself, has changed in the time since. Israel came second with Hong Kong and South Vietnam finishing third and fourth respectively.

Hong Kong is no longer a British colony, South Vietnam united with the north in 1975 and Israel is now part of UEFA. The nation had much more success in the AFC, winning one continental tournament, three Asian club titles and one, and to date only, appearance at the World Cup. That golden period ended in 1974 as Israel left the confederation due to its relations, or lack of, with its neighbours.

But the Israelis were still there in 1960 for what was virtually the same result as the inaugural competition, with Taiwan replacing Hong Kong in third place. At the time, few would have guessed that South Korea would still be waiting to add to their two titles over half a century later, though they have finished second on three occasions.

The Koreans came third four years later as Israel finally took the prize on home soil. India, coming to the end of its golden age, came second (fans on the sub-continent will be hoping to their team win a game at the tournament for the first time since then later this month) with Hong Kong propping up the four-strong group.

Princes of Persia become Kings of Asia

In 1968, Israel travelled to Tehran to defend their title. South Korea were absent for the first time but Iran made their continental bow in impressive fashion. The new boys won all four games to take the crown.

Team Melli were embarking on a period of domination and were to win the next two tournaments. 1972 saw the Persians defeat South Korea, who replaced the withdrawn (and soon to be permanently absent) Israel, in the final in Bangkok. The tournament was growing and the six teams were divided into two groups which meant the first knockout stages in the competition's history. It also saw the first appearance of Kuwait and Thailand.

The hat-trick was completed in 1976 as Iran defeated new-boys China in the semi-finals, once again held in Tehran, to book a final against Kuwait. The contest between these two giants of West Asia was settled by a solitary goal from the legendary Ali Parvin.

New champions emerge

After that hat-trick of title triumphs, Iran then 'did a South Korea' by following early success with a lengthy, and as yet, ongoing, drought. The tournament has since belonged to others and by 1980; the Asian Cup was starting to look more like the competition we know so well today.

The European Championships were taking place in Italy with eight teams and crowd violence but ten Asian sides did their battling on the pitch in Kuwait. North Korea reached the semi-finals and enjoyed their best ever tournament. The 1966 World Cup quarter-finalists have often declined to enter the continental competition, either refusing to play opponents for political reasons or simply not registering before the AFC's deadline.

Kuwait took on South Korea in the final and ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. It was a great time to be a Kuwaiti fan with the 1982 World Cup just around the corner but the team's time as the predominant West Asian power was soon to end.

Saudi Arabia and Japan take control

Saudi Arabia appeared on the scene in 1984 and have appeared in every final - aside from 2004 -since. The Falcons defeated China in the final in Singapore and defended their title four years later in Qatar. It was done by the slimmest of margins: a 4-3 penalty shootout win over South Korea in the final after a goalless draw.

Japan hosted the tournament for the first time in 1992, just before the J-League came into existence. The Blue Samurai announced their arrival on the Asian scene in forceful fashion and, like many others before, used home advantage to the full - defeating the Saudis in the final in a tournament that had been reduced to eight teams.

The two giants from opposite ends of Asia had established a firm grip on the competition and in a 12-team edition in 1996, the last of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia won a third title. Once again, it came in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw against hosts UAE.

As well as the Japanese-Saudi Arabian duopoly, the other two traditional powers were starting their own series of titanic battles. 1996 saw the first of Iran and South Korea's four consecutive Asian Cup quarter-final match-ups. In Dubai, Ali Daei hit four as Iran ran out 6-2 winners. Korea got revenge four years later and the cycle was repeated in 2004, when Ali Karimi led the team to a 4-3 win in China 4-3, in one of the greatest games in Asian Cup history, only for Korea to progress at Iran's expense in 2007. A fifth meeting at the same stage is possible later this month.

The first tournament in the 21st century was held in Lebanon. Japan once again defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final in Beirut, thanks to Shigeysohi Mochizuki's first and last goal for his country, and in Beijing four years later, the Samurai Blue won in even more impressive fashion. Then, with the cup's participants expanded to its present number of 16, Japan defeated hosts China at a hostile Worker's Stadium in the capital to win 3-1 in the final. It was a competition also remembered for the fact that teams like Jordan and Bahrain made the knockout stage while Saudi Arabia not only failed to reach the final for the first time since 1980, but crashed out in the first round.

In 2007, the competition was brought forward a year to end clashes with the Olympics and was a completely different affair. The AFC opted for no less than four co-hosts: Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. As a result, there was an inevitable and welcome South East Asian flavour to the tournament - with three of the four performing relatively well though the region is still waiting for a first win as are South and Central Asia Australia can now be added to that roll-call, but the nation only joined the AFC in 2006 to make a 2007 Asian Cup debut. Captain Lucas Neill talked of the Socceroos winning the trophy without losing a game. That theory was disproved in the second game against Iraq and the new boys only went as far as the quarter-finals. The defeat to Iraq was no disgrace, as the Lions of Mesopotamia went on to a surprise triumph, breaking the Saudi-Japanese stronghold for the first time since 1980. Younis Mahmoud's second-half header against the Saudis made headlines around the world and remains the biggest ever Asian Cup story. The 2010 version has much to live up to.

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