Football is firmly in the spotlight in Asia at the moment with the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 just around the corner, and this month saw the continent's own contenders match up in the Asian Games in Doha.
With less than 10 months to go until women's football's global showpiece, Asia's two qualified teams - Korea DPR and hosts China - were expected to dominate the competition along with Japan, who could still reach the finals by beating Mexico in a play-off, and it was no surprise that this heavyweight trio shared the podium come the end.
Perched at the top were Korea DPR , enjoying a tremendously successful year, followed by Japan, while the consolation of third place did little to alleviate the disappointment of the Chinese. The Eastern Asians had gone into the tournament with a remarkable record of success, boasting 147 gold medals - almost double the tally of nearest rivals Korea Republic - but hopes of a pre-FIFA Womens' World Cup boost were dashed when they crashed 3-1 at the hands of nemesis Korea DPR. That left China to battle it out for bronze with Korea Republic while their conquerors marched on to take gold against Japan in the final following a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out.
A tale of two Ris
The semi-final victory over China was a sweet revenge for coach Kim Kwang-Min's Korea DPR, who were succeeded as Asian champions by the Chinese in July's AFC Women's Asian Cup. Ri Kum-Suk and Ri Un-Gyong, were both on target in that match, and it was this vastly experienced duo who proved the driving force behind the North Koreans' success.
While Ri Kum-Suk - a star of the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup - expertly spearheaded Korea DPR's front line, 26-year-old Ri Un-Gyong, who also played a key role in the USA three years ago, pulled the strings in the midfield, creating chances for team-mates and breaking through to score crucial goals.
The latter, in fact, scored in each of Korea DPR's opening three victories over Vietnam (5-0), Chinese Taipei (4-0) and Korea Republic (4-1), a run of wins which also saw Ri Kum-Suk bag three goals. The duo stayed neck-and-neck in their own scoring race with a goal-apiece in the semi-final clash again China, with Ri Kum-Suk giving her side the lead four minutes into the extra-time after the two sides finished locked at 1-1 before Ri Un-Gyong sealed victory for Korea DPR with a close-range shot.
Morale-booster for Japan
In terms of importance, the Asian Games were always going to finish a distant second for Japan coach Hiroshi Oshashi behind that all-important playoff against Mexico, on which a fifth consecutive appearance on the world stage hinges. Japan did succeed in dispatching the Central Americans four years ago, but they will need to maintain the trademark virtues of well-organized attacking play, team spirit and solid defence - all of which were on show in Doha.
During an impressive campaign, Ohashi's outfits proved one of the most attacking and enterprising outfits on show as they scored 21 goals in just five games. Only in the final against Korea DPR did they fail to find the target, and even then they were unfortunate not to triumph, with a 4-2 shoot-out defeat tough on a team who had given as good as they had got during 120 tight minutes.
The Japanese, who also enjoyed a memorable victory over China in which defender Azusa Iwashimizu scored the only goal, certainly left with much to be encouraged by. "I am very glad to see the team played so hard and so well," admitted Ohashi, "it is a tremendous boost for the team."
Harsh lesson for China
Third place might have been secured with victory over Korea Republic, but this was by no means what Ma Liangxing's team had arrived in search of. Having recaptured the Asian title in July's AFC Women's Cup by defeating hosts Australia in the final, Ma's new-look team had traveled to Doha with the set goal of returning as champions.
However, such lofty expectancy may have merely heaped extra pressure for a team who, despite the historical position guaranteed to them by their record reaching the final of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 1996 and 1999, are no longer a dominant force in Asia.
China made a perfect start by waltzing past Thailand 5-0 and putting 12 past Jordan with no reply, but a single-goal defeat to Japan in the final group match condemned the Steel Roses to a semi-final clash again formidable Korea DPR. They still managed to take an early lead against their arch-rivals through Wang Dandan's 10th-minute goal but they looked decidedly tense afterwards and it was the ever-industrious Koreans who ultimately ran our deserved winners.
However, despite the disappointment, coach Ma was philosophical about the experience: "It was not a satisfactory result for us all as we have always been expected to be the winning team. But we are a young team now and these matches were good opportunities for the young players to prepare them for the FIFA Women's World Cup next year."
Another reason behind China's failed campaign was that Ma Xiaoxu , the newly crowned AFC Women's Player and AFC Youth Player of 2006 , was struggling against a virus throughout the tournament. The teenager, who almost single-handedly fired China to two continental titles - AFC Women's Youth Championship and AFC Women's Asian Cup - only came on as a substitute in the matches against Japan, Korea DPR and Korea Republic due to her physical condition and failed to find the target in any of them.