Bright future for co-hosts
While the AFC Asian Cup 2007 is approaching an exciting end, with Japan, three-time Saudi Arabia, Korea Republic and Iraq forcing their way through into the semi-finals, it was the four co-hosts that stole the show in the opening stage by creating the biggest shocks.
Vietnam stood out by becoming the only host nation to book a place in last eight, their brilliant performance illuminating the tournament, and their passionate fans. Despite the 2-0 quarter-final defeat at the hands of Iraq, few would deny that they have been one of the most entertaining teams.
Thailand, too, opened their campaign brightly on home soil and they went into the last group match against hotly tipped favourites Australia needing just a point to go through. However, their lack of international experience and pedigree took its toll as they were crushed 4-0 by the Socceroos, who advanced at their expense.
Also failing at the last hurdle were Indonesia, who lost the all-important third match against Korea Republic by a single goal in front of a 90,000-strong home crowd. But just like their fellow co-hosts, they earned respect from their rivals as well as fine support from their followers.
Malaysia may have been the only one of the four that failed to leave their mark, having lost all three matches. However, the lessons learned and experiences gleaned against Asia's top teams will only serve to benefit their development in the future.
Vietnam take the plaudits
When the four south east nations automatically qualified for the continental showpiece as co-hosts, few gave them a chance of progressing past the group stage. However, such thoughts were blown out of they water six minutes into the tournament's curtain-raiser between Thailand and Iraq, when the co-hosts took the lead from the penalty spot. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, but Thailand proved themselves to be a side that could compete against any Asian team.
Boosted by Thailand's heroics and cheered on by a fanatical home crowd, fellow co-hosts Vietnam took the opening two rounds by storm, with a 2-0 victory over the United Arab Emirates followed by a 1-1 draw against Qatar, who held defending champions Japan in their opening match. Despite falling 4-1 at the hands of the Japanese in the last match, the four points they gained were enough to see them through to the knockout phase.
Despite battling gallantly against Iraq in the quarter-finals, Vietnam eventually bowed out as Younis Mahmoud scored in either half to send Iraq through. However, they were acclaimed by their fans to be national heroes.
Vietnam had their Austrian coach Alfred Riedl to thank as he successfully cultivated a host of young talent that make up the backboneof both their Olympic and national teams. Having guided the junior team to the final qualifying round for Beijing 2008, Riedl took 12 players from this squad into the Asian Cup and his faith paid dividends with two U-23 forwards, Le Cong Vinh and Phan Thanh Binh scoring two of Vietnam's three goals.
Coach Riedl didn't hide his satisfaction with his team. "We created something of a sensation in Vietnam because nobody expected us to go as far as we did," he said. "It was obviously good that we could get four points and reach the quarter-final stage."
Thailand proud despite elimination
Having dominated South east Asia for so long, Thailand entered the tournament determined to make an impact on the international arena. Although the recent history did little to support them, Chanvit Polchovin's outfit showed that they were capable to compete against the continent's top teams.
Following their opening draw against Iraq, a 2-0 defeat of Oman put the hosts into a strong position, needing only a point against Australia to qualify from this group. With spirit in the dressing room sky high, they were expected to produce another upset against the giants.
Even after Michael Beauchamp put Australia in front after 21 minutes, the hosts still produced plenty of chances to equalise as they dominated the second half. Pipat Thonkanya, Thailand's two-goal hero against Oman, could have levelled the game when he found himself with just the keeper to beat, but found himself guiding the ball straight into the body of Mark Schwarzer. The co-hosts collapsed in the final ten minutes which saw Mark Viduka bagging a brace before Harry Kewell sealed a 4-0 victory with a last-minute strike.
With many still bemoaning Thailand's failing at the final hurdle, coach Chanvit saw the positive side. "We believe all the Thai people can be proud of us because we with the same number of points as Australia," he said. "The team's performance will make our people support their national team in the future because we showed we can match any team in Asia."