Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Zico's dreams dashed in Doha
Sitting at a breakfast table in a hotel in Doha last November as Iraq strolled into the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Zico ate an omelette and talked of his dream: to lead the Lions of Mesopotamia to the 2014 World Cup in his homeland. His nightmare? Surely, that must come in the form of a certain heavily-tattooed Australian midfielder called Tim Cahill.
The man labelled the 'White Pele' is a laid back kind of guy - slow to turn up for arranged interviews but quick to smile and when he finally does arrive; happy just to talk about football. Still, it would have been a brave companion, if a companion he had, who brought up the name of the former Everton midfielder at breakfast on Wednesday morning.
Twice Cahill has seriously dented Zico's dreams as a coach - the first at the 2006 World Cup with two goals in the last six minutes as Australia came from behind to beat Japan. The Brazilian has always maintained that the defeat was the end of Japan's German adventure.
On Tuesday, the New York Red Bulls star once again intervened with a late goal to spark a comeback that turned a 1-0 lead for Iraq into a 2-1 defeat and three points for Zico into zero. It was not quite as painful as Kaiserslautern six years ago, as there are still four games remaining in a final stage of qualification that has now reached the halfway stage, but with two points from the first four, nobody in Iraq is confident. Already they are eight points behind leaders Japan and with only the second automatic qualification spot available, they are three points behind the chasing pack of Australia, Jordan and Oman. With the Socceroos having three of the last four games Down Under against West Asian opposition, it is a tough ask.
It could have turned out differently of course. The pressure was on both teams after their slow starts - especially an Australian team after just one win in the last six games. It would though, unlike 2006, have been harsh on them had they left empty handed. This was a much-improved performance after the Jordan loss last month, though the only way was up.
The main negative was that after spending much of the match on top, Australia allowed the hosts to get a goal with 18 minutes remaining. Defeat would have been disastrous but Cahill had other ideas. As he has done so many times before, the midfielder got his team out of jail. A powerful header after 82 minutes gave his team a crucial equaliser but there was more to come. Four minutes later Archie Thompson headed the winner, a goal worth more than all of the world record single game international haul of 13 he managed against American Samoa in 2001.
In the space of a few minutes, the World Cup qualification campaign had been revived. Fans and media at home, increasingly vocal in their concern over coach Holger Osieck's faith in familiar faces, were reminded that there was life in the old dogs still and if the result wasn't enough, Thompson made it clear after the game.
"Who keeps telling me I'm old? Who keeps telling all us old boys we shouldn't be part of the Socceroos?" the 33-year-old said. "That's what it is - team spirit, fighting spirit. Maybe we have been lacking that in the last few games. But hopefully this will shut a few mouths and put us back on track." The latter is definitely true; the former remains to be seen.
What was quiet was the mostly empty stadium. We will never know how Iraq would have done in front of a passionate crowd in Baghdad or Basra. The fact that they play home games in Doha has become almost the norm. It is unfortunate as the atmosphere generated by the fans of Iran in Tehran was electric. 100,000 packed into Azadi Stadium, the most intimidating in Asia, and celebrated the 1-0 win over South Korea with a massed Poznan that Manchester City (or indeed Lech Poznan) could only dream of. Now only three points separate top from bottom in Group A.
It wasn't a game of high quality. Korea hit the woodwork twice in the first half and ten minutes into the second half were given a boost as Masoud Shojaei was sent off for a silly second yellow. The Osasuna star was given a kiss on the cheek by Andranik Teymourian and then departed in tears.
Just like Barack Obama was criticised for passivity and letting Mitt Romney off the hook in the first US presidential debate, Korea were strangely lacking in aggression for much of the match and failed to hasten the tempo after the dismissal, perhaps thinking the job was done.
Before the game, Iranian president Ahmadinejad called for self belief and coach Carlos Queiroz asked for unity. The players responded. Driven forward by captain Javad Nekounam with the impressive Reza Goochannejhad in attack, finally with the correct visa in place, the hosts took advantage of an enduring Korean inability to defend set pieces to score with 15 minutes remaining.
Nekounam, Iran's Tim Cahill, was the man, as he so often has been over the years. Unmarked in the area, he swept a low shot into the net. At the same arena at the same qualification three years ago, Nekounam put his team ahead only for Park Ji-sung to equalise. This time there was no Park.
Queiroz, who was also sent to the dressing room for remonstrating with officials, ended up high in the stadium being high-fived from fans at the end of the game. The Portuguese tactician is credited with introducing some maturity to Manchester United in their European campaigns. He earned his stripes after Shojaei's exit, and the ten-men of Team Melli regrouped quickly and effectively to give the Koreans barely a sniff of goal. In the end, Iran deserved the win.
Just a month ago, after the Lebanon loss, the Tehran media was out for blood. Now it is Korean coach Choi Kang-hee, criticised for the performance in a 2-2 draw in Uzbekistan in September, who will face a frosty reception when he returns to Seoul. The last two Korean coaches to lose World Cup qualifiers were both fired within the month. That is not Choi's fate but he has much to ponder.
Uzbekistan have already changed coach once already and are not about to do so after a first win - 1-0 victory over Qatar - to move into third, just two points off the lead.
The other fixture was an entertaining affair in Group B as Oman also picked up their first three points with a 2-1 win over Jordan to join their opponents as well as Australia on five points at the halfway stage.