Japan take AFC title in tournament of surprises

An outstanding Japan side emerged victorious at the AFC Futsal Championship 2012 on Friday, providing a fitting end to a tournament that saw its fair share of surprises, not least Iran’s failure to reclaim a title they have made their own.

This is only the second time Iran have lost their grip on the trophy in 12 editions of the competition, and on both occasions it has been Japan who have stepped into the breach. The win secures the champions a spot at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Thailand 2012 alongside Friday’s runners-up Thailand, as well as the remaining two semi-finalists and the highest-placed quarter-finalist.

FIFA.com looks back over the highs and lows of a dramatic tournament in the United Arab Emirates.

New champions
Japan’s impressive performances meant their route to the final was relatively untroubled. Drawn in Group B alongside Lebanon, Chinese Taipei and Tajikistan, they nonetheless endured a torrid opening encounter against a feisty Lebanon, only scoring the winning goal seven seconds from time, but this was to be the last time they were seriously challenged.

A 1-0 win over quarter-final opponents Kyrgyzstan secured a Thailand 2012 berth for Spanish coach Miguel Rodrigo and his charges, who then breezed past fellow semi-finalists Australia 3-0 before crushing Thailand 6-1 in the final.

Much of the credit for this seemingly effortless dominance must go to Rodrigo. His tactical nous ensured his side were watertight at the back, with goalkeeper Hisamitsu Kawahara conceding only five goals, while remaining lethal in attack. Tetsuya Murakami and Kenichiro Kogure combined brilliantly throughout the competition, but the greatest plaudits should be reserved for captain Rafael Henmi, named Player of the Tournament for leading his team to the title.  

The dark horse
Despite their heavy loss in the decider, Thailand enjoyed a superb tournament. Nowhere was this more evident than in their epic 5-4 victory over ten-time champions Iran, a gruelling semi-final encounter that may well have taken its toll on the players ahead of their disappointing showing against Japan.

Thailand went to the UAE knowing that, as hosts, their place at the FIFA Futsal World Cup was secure. Yet far from being complacent, they treated every game as a chance to test themselves against Asia’s best.

Iran, for their part, were so dominant in the group stage that it seemed inevitable they would be crowned champions once again. They obliterated Korea Republic 14-1 then swept aside Qatar 8-0 and Australia 9-0 to storm into the last eight.

The quarter-finals were almost as easy. Cheered on by Dubai’s large Iranian community, they dismissed Uzbekistan 6-3 then turned their sights on Thailand. The south-east Asians had other ideas, however, their shock victory leaving Iran to console themselves with third place after a 4-0 play-off win over Australia.

Despite suffering two heavy defeats at the hands of Iran, the Australians will also be satisfied with finishing fourth and qualifying for Thailand 2012 after missing out on the previous edition in Brazil four years ago. They will be joined in Thailand by their last-eight opponents Kuwait, who qualified as best losing quarter-finalists after their narrow 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Futsalroos.

Hopes dashed
For Lebanon this was a tournament to forget. Many believed this to be the country’s strongest-ever team, but after the promise of the opening match, which they narrowly lost to Japan, the quality of the side’s performances dropped off.

Uninspired wins over Chinese Taipei and Tajikistan set up a quarter-final clash against the Thais, but Lebanon crashed out of the tournament after surrendering a two-goal lead to lose 5-3.

Uzbekistan were similarly disappointing. Their Group D campaign opened with a draw against Kuwait, but despite wins over China PR and Indonesia, goal difference consigned them to second place in the table and a tricky quarter-final encounter against a rampant Iran, who beat them 6-3.

The stat
7 – The number of goals scored by Iranian duo Hassan Zadeh and Vahid Shamsaee, Japan’s Rafael Henmi and Thai star Thueanklang Suphawut. With all four players tied at the top of the goalscorers’ table, the award for the tournament’s best marksman went to Shamsaee, who completed six assists. Despite only finishing third, Iran posted the competition’s most impressive stats, with the side scoring 44 goals in six fixtures, averaging more than seven goals per game.

The quote
“Before the game I said we were underdogs. I told the players what the fans were saying, and that gave them the motivation. I repeated a few supportive comments as well as some sarcastic ones, and that gave them the perfect blend of confidence and the desire to raise their game. That’s the psychological side of the football,” Japan coach Miguel Rodrigo after Japan’s victory over Thailand in the final.