Asian futsal hopes start here
Despite heading out of the FIFA Futsal World Championship Chinese Taipei 2004 after the first group stage, the four Asian representatives, Iran, Japan, Thailand and hosts Chinese Taipei, did impress in the world's most prestigious futsal tournament. It's important to remember that this smaller football has only been played in most of the countries in the world's largest and most populous continent for less than two decades.
While the results may briefly disappoint the fanatical Asian supporters, the performances, lighting up the stage more than once, have shown Asian teams' hopes, passions, spirit and progress in five-a-side football.
Chinese Taipei: A goal that took two years
Three straight losses at the group stage may look like walkovers for Chinese Taipei's formidable opponents, but the sight of the raucous fans jumping up to celebrate their team's first goal, and the scorer Chen Chia Ho's tears, told their own story.
"We had been together training for two years for the tournament," said the teenager from Taipei Culture University. "We know we are new to this game and might be no match for those world powers, but we love the game and look to improve our skills and gain experience through the hard-fought matches."
A 12-0 opening drubbing at the hands of African champions Egypt didn't depress the host's side, whose majority are students from universities and colleges. In the second match with Spain, coach Damien Knabben's young charges did a better job than in the previous game, only letting the reigning world champions find the net three times in the first half. In the final meeting with Ukraine, they defended gallantly while hitting back with counter attacks, with Chen Chia Ho opening the team's account after 14 minutes.
"The results are even less important for us, as we are happy to play against the world's top sides, from who we have learned a great deal," continued the 19-year-old. "Our next mission is next year's AFC Futsal Championship. I hope we will have a futsal league here so I can play this game professionally."
Thailand: Final game that made history
The target for Coach Glaucio Castro's men may have surprised pundits - a place in the last eight. But the proceedings saw the team have chances to fulfill their dream, only a narrow 2-1 opening loss to Czech proving costly for the team.
Following a 9-1 thrashing at the hands of Brazil, the well-organized Thais pulled off a sensational 4-3 victory - their first-ever FIFA World Championship triumph - over the Aussies. The Southeastern Asian side pressed hard and controlled the game through their delicate passing and combinations. Their efforts paid off four minutes after the break when Anucha Munjarern broke the stalemate. Their rivals leveled only one minute later through an Adrian Vizzari effort, but Pattaya Piemkum regained the Thais' lead with three minutes remaining, with Yutthana Polsak sealing the victory with a last-minute spot kick.
"I said that Thais players are technically strong and they are individually as good as the Brazilian players. With more experience and better understanding about the game, they can play against any team," said a beaming Castro after the win over Australia. "A new page starts here full of hope."
Japan: Precious experience gained
While supporters may still be bemoaning their early exit at the group stage, coach Sapo admitted that the team have made improvements game by game. "Kenichiro Kogure increased his accuracy at shooting and the team improved their understanding of positional play," he said before leaving for Japan.
Japan came close to toppling Paraguay in the opening group match, only allowing the opponents to edge through after two goals in two minutes towards the end. Their hopes of marching into last eight looked slim after that blow, as unsurprisingly they lost 5-0 to Italy in the second match. Under the pressure that they would have to score at least three more than the USA in the all-important final encounter, they could only manage a 1-1 draw.
"We have gained precious experience," said Sapo. "We have learned how to control the game from Italy, and we know better how to take advantage of our speed and technique against tall and physically strong teams like the USA."
Iran: More composure required
Some Iranian players attributed their exit to lack of experience and some unexpected drama, but for Vahid Shamsaee, who scored 4 of his team's 9 goals, an extra ounce of composure is necessary for the team to perform better.
"We have to learn that we should not play with too much emotion. A good player will not be affected by any unexpected events either on and off pitch," said the 29-year-old striker. "We used to have a better first half, but somehow we seemed to have problems in the second half."
Iran seemed to get anxious in the decisive match with Argentina. The South Americans took the lead through a spot kick after ten minutes but Shamsaee's cool equalizer six minutes later pulled his team back on track. But just as the match appeared to be reaching a tense denouement, Team Melli retreated and the Argentinians scored five times in the final seven minutes.
"The defeats taught us lessons and gave us experience as well," concluded Shamsaee. "But this is futsal and we can only work hard and come back next time."