Thursday, March 1, 2012
Goals galore as Qatar advance
You can say what you like about Asian football but, in terms of sheer entertainment, it takes some beating. Maybe not in the case of Indonesia on the final night of the penultimate round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, but there was much more besides the mauling in Manama.
Six of the ten teams were already through before the action started. The four who made it on Wednesday, and those who almost did, provided enough drama to last until the next February 29 rolls around.
At the end of Bahrain's previous qualifier in Doha in November, Peter Taylor, their English coach, joked that the team would need to beat Indonesia 12-0 to have a chance of going through and Qatar would have to lose to Iran. At one time late on Wednesday afternoon, that looked as if it was going to happen.
Indonesia had their goalkeeper sent off in the third minute, the hosts had a penalty and there was no looking back. The Reds were scoring goal after goal in Manama while Qatar were 2-1 down in Tehran to their already-qualified hosts. Only a late equaliser in Iran foiled Bahrain.
The defeat, Indonesia's biggest ever, unsurprisingly provoked speculation that there was something dodgy going on. "Bahrain's big win attracts suspicion" was a headline in UK newspaper the Independent. It's all very convenient when a team that needs to win by at least eight goals does just that, especially when it receives a questionable quartet of penalties. Who can say?
Bahrain's rulers imprisoned some of their own best players last year for taking part in demonstrations. Trying to influence the result of a football match seems fairly small fry in comparison, especially when a member of the ruling family is also the president of the Football Association. But it should be pointed out that Indonesia, who had lost all five previous games, have major issues. Even in the best of times, the South East Asians, notorious for travelling badly, would be expected to lose in Manama. These were the worst of times. In Indonesia, football has a real talent for self-destruction. The whole group stage has been a chastening one for the nation with politics and off-the-field issues damaging any chance the Merah Putih had.
Popular coach Alfred Reidl was fired just a week before it all started last summer. It was a political decision. After years of corruption in the national football association, the long-serving president, and a man who had served two prison sentences during that time, was finally ousted in a bitter and protracted struggle. The first act of the new president was to fire Riedl, hired by the old regime. It was a mistake. The players didn't seem to like the new man, Wim Rijsbergen; talk of boycotts filled the air and he was shifted out at the end of the year.
Wednesday's match was the first and intended to be the last for caretaker coach Aji Santoso. When Peter Taylor took over England for one game back in 2000, he is remembered for giving young players a chance in the game against Italy. Santoso had little choice. The biggest stars that the country has are unable to play for the national team after joining a breakaway league that sprung up in the country.
Santoso took a squad of 18 to Manama. Ten had never played for the senior national team before. Many won't play again. Andi Muhammad Guntur came off the bench after three minutes to make his first appearance for his country in goal. Journalists in Indonesia still have not stopped shaking their heads - Nigel Spink replacing Jimmy Rimmer in the final of the 1982 European Cup it wasn't.
Indonesia are still a continental minnow but the version that travelled was weak, inexperienced, poorly-motivated, according to rumours far from united, and travelling to a tough away fixture to face opposition who were desperate to win and desperate to score as many goals as possible. A thrashing was always a possibility. Ten, though, is a shock and terribly sad for a football-loving nation of 250 million people.
Conspiracy theorists are not short of targets and could also look at the game in Tehran. Iran, already qualified, have no love for Bahrain in both football and 'real life' and a late Qatari equaliser was not a major surprise especially for those who remember 2001. Then Team Melli were on course for the World Cup but lost in Manama in the final game and Saudi Arabia went to Korea-Japan instead.
Memories of that still rankle in Persia, partly due to the result but mostly by the way in which Bahrain, who had nothing to play for, celebrated after the game with Saudi flags.
At the end of the evening, there were no Saudi flags being waved in Bahrain or the Kingdom itself as the Green Falcons crashed out of qualification before the final round, a major humiliation for a proud football nation. A win in Australia would have sent the Green Falcons through and with 20 minutes remaining in Melbourne against the already-qualified hosts, everything was going to plan with Frank Rijkaard's men 2-1 up.
Then it all went wrong with three goals in rapid succession. Former star of the Saudi team Yasser Al Qahtani came off the bench with his team 2-1 up at 72 minutes. By the time he touched the ball, they were 4-2 down and soon they were out.
The Sniper has already hinted at international retirement. Saudi Arabia Football Association president Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal has done more than hint and announced his resignation. The entire board is expected to follow suit. Many are asking about what Rijkaard, with over two years left on his lucrative contract, will do. His potential availability in the global job market means that his name will stay in the headlines, even if Saudi Arabia do not. The Dutchman was understandably tight-lipped about his plans for the future but there are already whispers linking him to a certain job in South West London.
The Aussie goal blitz put all attention on Muscat, where both teams in action still harboured hopes of making the final ten. With Saudi Arabia losing, both Oman and Thailand would have finished second with a win. Oman took the runners-up spot with a 2-0 victory to ensure there would be no South East Asian representation. An early goal from Hussain Al Hadri and a late one from Abdul Aziz Mubarak were enough.
That was also the scoreline in Seoul, where South Korea defeated Kuwait to top their group. It was far from a vintage performance from the Taeguk Warriors as, until Lee Dong-Gook scored midway through the second half, Kuwait had been the better team. Korea were far more clinical, however.
The news from Seoul was greeted with delight by thousands of Lebanese fans in Abu Dhabi. Lebanon started the stage ranked the lowest of the 20, way down at 146, but made the final stage for the first time ever despite losing to the UAE 4-2.
Midfielder Roda Antar blamed the media for the defeat. "The team did not perform the way they should have, and there were many reasons which were contributors to the loss," he said. "When we arrived in UAE, there were more than 70 journalists at the hotel where we were staying, as well as fans."
Elsewhere, North Korea drew 1-1 in Tajikistan to keep their title of unofficial world champions, Iraq thrashed Singapore 7-1, while China acheived some sort of consolation for another early exit by defeating Jordan. Japan surrendered top spot in their group to Uzbekistan after losing 1-0 at home to the Central Asians.
It all starts again in June when the final ten, divided into two groups of five, fight over four and a half spots for the 2014 World Cup. It promises to be quite a ride. Asian football always is.