Afghan triumph highlights mixed year for Asia
SEOUL, South Korea (AP)
Gunfire sounded on the streets on Kabul in September but for once, there was plenty to be happy about as Afghanistan made headlines around the world by becoming the champion of South Asia. It was a rare feel-good story connected to the country and the most memorable event in another busy year for Asian football.
The result was not a shock, even if some headlines suggested so. Afghanistan reached the final in the 2011 edition of the biennial regional tournament, losing to India in Delhi. Revenge was sweet in September with a 2-0 win over the same team in Kathmandu. Tens of thousands of people celebrated in Kabul and the team was welcomed home by President Hamid Karzai.
''You can't imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team and me,'' said the victorious coach Yousef Kargar. ''We have proved that we belong in the world of football. Our team has improved a lot over the last few years and I am sure we will get better in the years to come.''
If the Lions of Khorasan can win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament held for Asia's developing nations, then it will qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup to be held in Australia and possible games against continental giants such as Japan and South Korea.
''Afghanistan's success in South Asia has... served a caution to 2014 AFC Challenge Cup title aspirants. They have showed their mettle at the regional level and they would be one of the favorites in Maldives,'' said Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.
Salman made headlines in May as he won an overwhelming victory for the presidency of the AFC, easily defeating Yousef Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates and Thailand's Worawi Makudi. The Bahraini's ascension to Asia's top job ended almost two years of uncertainty after the suspension of Mohamed bin Hammam from the post in May 2011 for alleged vote-buying.
There have been other changes at the AFC. Backed by FIFA vice-president Ali Al Bin Hussein of Jordan, the Asian Champions League has been expanded. The number of nations with a chance of participating in the continent's premier club competition will increase from ten in 2013 to 19 next year, allowing countries such as Hong Kong, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to enter.
Jordan's national team came close to qualifying for the biggest prize of all -the 2014 World Cup - but lost an intercontinental playoff against Uruguay, beaten 5-0 at home in the first leg before a creditable scoreless draw away.
That defeat left Asia with four familiar teams going to Brazil. Japan was the most, perhaps only, impressive performer and clinched its spot with a 1-1 draw against Australia. That result was the Socceroos' best performance of an underwhelming campaign and they had to wait until the final whistle of the final game to be sure of automatic qualification.
Despite qualifying for the World Cup, Australia fired Holger Osieck as coach after some poor performances in friendlies and went against its recent trend by appointing a home-grown replacement in Ang Postecoglou who has proven his mettle in the local A-League.
Iran had wobbled in its bid for Brazil but ended strongly with three wins from the last three, including a final day 1-0 victory in a bad tempered clash with South Korea. The Koreans squeezed into an eighth successive World Cup but were far from fluent. At the end of qualification coach Choi Kang-hee stepped down and former playing legend Hong Myong-bo took the reins.
Australia received a horror draw for the World Cup, pitted against the 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus Chile. Japan will face Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece. Iran takes on Argentina, Bosnia and Nigeria while South Korea is happy to be drawn with Belgium, Algeria and Russia.
Guangzhou Evergrande took the headlines at club level, becoming the first Chinese winner of the Asian Champions League. Marcello Lippi also became the first coach to win the premier Asian and European club competitions. The big spending Cantonese team strolled to the final though it needed away goals to overcome FC Seoul of South Korea.
Guangzhou lost both games at the FIFA Club World Cup in December but captain Zheng Zhi was named the 2013 Asian Player of the Year by the AFC while teammate Dario Conca was awarded the prize of Best Foreign Player in Asia.
Asian exports to Europe had a mixed year. Shinji Kagawa won the English Premier League title at the end of his first season in England with Manchester United in May but has struggled for playing time in his second campaign under new coach David Moyes.
Former United star Park Ji-sung tasted relegation with QPR before returning to PSV Eindhoven while fellow Korean Son Heung-min is a star of the Bundesliga and joined title-chasing Bayer Leverkusen in the summer for around $15 million. In December, Keisuke Honda finally joined Italian giant AC Milan to end another very interesting 12 months for Asian football fans.