Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Ref grabs headlines in clash of titans
It wasn't the shimmering Keisuke Honda, the rejuvenated Tim Cahill, the under-rated Mehdi Rahmati or the cool Kim Bo-Kyoung who grabbed the headlines on Tuesday night in Asia - it was the referee Khalil Al Ghamdi.
Saudi Arabia may not have made the final stage of qualification in Asia for the first time in over 30 years, but on matchday three the nation provided the star of the show in Brisbane as Australia and Japan played out a 1-1 draw in a game that would have graced the ongoing European championships.
On a night that saw three of the four games in the Asian Zone (ten teams are split into two groups of five with the top two heading to Brazil) end all square, Al Ghamdi at least was even-handed with a series of strange decisions.
He sent off Mark Milligan for two bookable offences, gave the Socceroos the softest of penalties and then inexplicably reduced Japan to ten men. That doesn't mean everything he did was wrong, but making big calls brings pitfalls when they don't survive the swiftest of scrutiny. When fans at the Suncorp Stadium started to chant 'Bulls**t', the classic Queensland sporting refrain wasn't referring to a playing surface that resembled something of a paddock due to a rugby match three days earlier.
Despite the decisions it was a game to remember and one that, in terms of drama, ranks not far behind that meeting at the 2006 World Cup. It was six years to the day since the two Group B rivals met on a sweltering afternoon in Kaiserslautern when Cahill came off the bench to secure Australia's first win on the global stage.
There were calls from the media down under for coach Holger Osieck to ensure that the Everton star started the game. The sight of the corner-flag punching midfielder would, so the thinking went, have the Japanese shaking in their boots.
But this is not the same Samurai Blue of six years ago - both literally (there were no Japanese survivors from that 3-1 defeat) and in pretty much every way possible. Then, it was Australia with players at big clubs all around Europe. Now it is Japan, who arrived in Brisbane on the back of two convincing wins, with the world stars, the confidence, talent and the youthful energy - a contrast to an ageing Socceroos side that still carries a strong whiff of 2006.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it was the hosts - who had drawn in Oman four days earlier - that started much the brighter. This was English football - not the kind seen in Donetsk just hours before but long balls, aggressive intent, high intensity and physical encounters - as we used to know it.
Australia were left to rue not being able to make the first half-hour count as Japan slowly got themselves off a back foot that had been unused against Oman and Jordan and started to get back into the game.
The dismissal of Milligan early in the second half, for a second yellow, was harsh and it looked to be Japan's game when, after 65 minutes, Honda danced down the right side of the area and found the unlikely and unmarked figure of defender Yuzo Kurihara loitering with intent a couple of metres from goal. He made no mistake.
A third straight win for the Japanese would have left Australia struggling, with a point from two games and with two tough away trips to come. Fortunately, Al Ghamdi was on hand five minutes later to even things up and award the hosts a penalty for an innocuous push in the six yard box. Few Aussies appealed, but none complained as Luke Wilkshire slammed home the spot kick.
Even then, the hosts kept pushing for the win,as did Japan. There was still time for Kurihara to be shown a second yellow for bumping into an opponent. Perhaps it was just about a fair result and one that left both teams satisfied. It had been a good advert for Asian football, if not its officiating.
While it is always hard to separate emotion and prejudice from any controversy, the standards of refereeing in Asia have long been a source of concern with the 2011 Asian Cup something of a low point. Last week, the vice-president of FIFA and perhaps future president of the AFC, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, complained after Jordan lost 6-0 to Japan.
"I would like to express concerns over the refereeing we have witnessed thus far in the Asian qualifiers," he said. "It is certainly a highly important matter worth addressing with my colleagues on the AFC executive committee. We are in need of a thorough assessment of our refereeing system."
Ali hailing from Jordan does not mean he is wrong, but it does mean there is cynicism about his motives for speaking out. He will have the chance to change those perceptions.
Jordan were not in action but, like Australia and Japan, would have been pleased with the result elsewhere as Iraq and Oman played out a 1-1 draw in Iraq's temporary home, Doha. Visiting coach Paul Le Guen was happier than counterpart Zico despite the fact his team had taken the lead through Mohammed Al Balushi in the eighth minute. A Younis Mahmoud penalty split the spoils and keeps Japan, on seven points, five clear of Iraq, Australia and Oman.
Group A: Korea still perfect, Iran stumble
If any team in Asia knows how to qualify, it is South Korea. An eighth successive appearance looks likelier after two wins in four days gave the team the only 100% record of the two groups. After a 4-1 victory over Qatar in Doha, the Taeguk Warriors had little trouble defeating Lebanon 3-0.
Two goals from Kim Bo-Kyoung, who is an increasingly hot property, put the hosts on their way. A late strike from Koo Ja-Cheol added gloss to a game that was already won.
Even with some important players missing, Korea have made a solid start and have already scored more goals than all four Group A rivals combined.
It was expected that Iran would join the easterners on six points - that was the feeling as 100,000 crammed into Tehran's Azadi Stadium to greet Qatar. Javad Nekounam hit the bar and that was as close as the hosts came. It could have been worse if goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati, one of the best shotstoppers around, had not intervened to ensure a goalless draw.
Iran and Qatar move on to four points each. Uzbekistan and Lebanon are fourth and fifth respectively with just a point to their names.
It was another night of non-stop action and drama to rival anything going on in Poland and Ukraine at the moment - even some of the refereeing.