It was, as the international headlines screamed, something of a shameful night for Asian football but there was more. As Al Sadd celebrated a hugely controversial second goal in the first leg of their 2011 Asian Champions League semi-final at Suwon Bluewings on Wednesday evening, along with the punches, the flying kicks and players trying to strangle each other with towels, there was, in the chilly evening air, a feeling that this may be the club's year.
Al Sadd and Suwon's mass brawl
Fate beats form every time. The Qatari powerhouse only entered this year's competition thanks to the disqualification of Vietnamese teams due to the non-submission of documents. They then came through the qualifying stage, topped their group despite only winning two out of six games. Even better was to come in the quarter-final against Sepahan. Despite losing the first leg 1-0 at home, the AFC gave the game to Al Sadd with a 3-0 scoreline after the Iranians had fielded an ineligible player. The Doha outfit can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of the administrative incompetence of others but Wednesday was a little different.
Suwon were clear favourites after knocking out Japanese champions Nagoya Grampus in the second round and then eliminating last year's finalists Zob Ahan to move into the last four. It had already been a frustrating night for the hosts, unable to turn pressure and possession into penetration and goals. Midway through the second half Mamadou Niang's deflected shot gave Al Sadd the lead. As you would expect with the second leg to come in Doha next week, the visitors were happy to protect what they had for the rest of the match. Suwon were pushing forward, encouraged by a similar situation in the last round. Then, too, they had fallen behind at home before coming back to draw and then win away.
With nine minutes left, Suwon were encamped in the Qatari half. In the penalty area, Choi Sung-Hwan got a kick to the head. The Bluewings, continental champions in 2001 and 2002, continued to press forward and crossed into the danger area. When that was cleared, Yeom Ki-Hoon eventually let the ball go out for a throw-in almost in line with the edge of the Al Sadd area.
The Koreans, waiting for the bleeding Choi to be patched up, expected the ball back and so kept their attacking positions, wandering back a few yards in anticipation of the throw-in or, at worst, perhaps a long kick through to their goalkeeper and then the long kick back.
If Choi looked a little dazed as he stood up, it was nothing to how the rest of his team-mates were feeling. All watched in horror as Kader Keita quickly knocked the ball forward to Niang who sprinted into the empty Suwon half to run past goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong and score into an empty Suwon net.
As far as adjectives go, if all goalmouth scrambles in football are 'almighty' then most brawls are 'unseemly' and what followed was certainly that. Korean anger at the manner of the goal was ratcheted up a notch at Al Sadd's celebrations with substitutes and staff joining in to salute a goal that has taken the visitors to within touching distance of the final.
The hapless referee, surely wishing that he had stopped the game when the initial head injury had occurred, looked like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights. A semblance of order was starting to be restored when a Suwon fan made it onto the pitch to square up to the visiting goalkeeper. That took the brawl from the 'unseemly' into the almost 'unseen' category and fans in the West Stand were treated to something out of a Wild West movie. Players and staff were trading punches with a few Taekwondo kicks thrown in for good measure.
And this was, don't forget, the Asian Champions League semi-final. It was not the kind of advert that the AFC had in mind for its showpiece event. Those clutching at straws pointed out, perhaps in jest, that it is not as bad as first thought as the two culprits for Al Sadd were from the Ivory Coast and Senegal and that the most vociferous of the Suwon pack were Croatian and Macedonian.
Keita was sent off for his actions in the brawl as was Suwon's Stevica Ristic. Niang, who "lost his head" according to Al Sadd's Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati (not that any around him were keeping theirs) didn't last much longer before seeing red, and neither did a member of each team's coaching staff. If that wasn't enough, at some point in the ten minutes stoppage time, Al Sadd's Korean defender, and former Suwon player, Lee Jung-Soo left the pitch to be subbed after arguing with his team-mates that they should let Suwon score. After the game, Lee told reporters that Niang and Keita had apologised for the goal and admitted it was wrong. He admitted that he may never play for the club again. Many Koreans are hoping that he does not.
There are precedents in Europe as well as closer to home. When Kanu set up Marc Overmars to give Arsenal a similar goal against Sheffield United in the 1999 FA Cup, Arsene Wenger offered a replay. In 2008 in Korea, Seongnam Ilhwa, defending Asian champions, scored in such a fashion in the K-League and immediately allowed Ahn Jung-Hwan to score an equaliser for Busan.
Despite Lee's wishes, any thought of allowing Suwon to score was lost within seconds as the fight broke out and rendered such gestures impossible and anyway, given the fact that it was an away goal for Al Sadd, it may not have seemed like a fair trade.
The Qataris made much (both during and after the match) of Suwon's initial reluctance to put the ball out of play and they had a point. Only when Suwon's attack broke down was the ball allowed to go out. Regardless, it was unsportsmanlike from the visitors. Ten blue shirts in the Al Sadd half were clearly waiting to get the ball back. If Keita felt that Suwon didn't deserve repossession, the midfielder should have made it clear well before trying to send Niang clear.
Fossati has seen much in his career and looked embarrassed at the goal and shaken at the aftermath, saying. ''Of course, I don't want to defend the second goal.'' The post-match comments from Fossati and his opposite number Yoon Sung-Hyo were perhaps the only bright point of the evening with both being restrained as much as possible and trying not to add to the controversy.
What happens next is down to the AFC. Suwon will be rightly punished for the fan entering the pitch and their part in the brawl, as will Al Sadd. The goal stands. It was against the spirit if not the law of the beautiful game. In the future it should be down to referees to decide what happens when a player is down injured.
For the moment however, the best way to restore some class and dignity to what is one of the biggest games in the Asian season would be for Al Sadd to allow Suwon to score from the kick-off next week. It would be a class act and would ensure that the next time Asian football makes international headlines; it is for the right reasons.