THE WEEKEND REPLAYED - The Workers' Stadium in Beijing was buzzing before Sunday's final as home fans, enchanted by weeks of fine football and the heroism of their beloved team, made their way to a classic finale against bitter rivals Japan.  Unfortunately for the passionate though, their 20-year wait for the top continental prize will have to continue on for four more years at least as Japan roared to a controversial 3-1 to retain their Asian crown. 

It was their third crown in four instalments of the Asian cup, and their second on the trot after winning in Lebanon four years ago.  With menace in the air, the wildly pro-Chinese crowd were ready, expecting their heroes to whip the old foe on home soil and reclaim the Asian Cup for the first time since 1984. 

And Arie Haan's talented young charges came out swinging, but Japan hardened by a difficult campaign and inspired by a glamour final against the hosts, were in the mood for a fight.  Takayuki Suzuki, was booked for an impetuous late challenge and two others were booked in a feisty first 45 minutes of the hotly contested encounter. 

Closely fought
But battling bravely, the Japanese managed to keep their eyes on the prize.  With just 22 minutes gone, Suzuki made amends for his petulant booking as he raced into the box on a promising foray forward.  Nodding Shunsuke Nakamura's header back across the face of goal, he opened the door for Takashi Fukunishi to head the holders into the lead.

The goal was met with a deafening silence from the shocked crowd.  And stunned into immediate response, the hosts bagged an equaliser just five minutes later.  The response to Dalian Shide man Li Ming's delicate equaliser was pure pandemonium - flags flying, hopes soaring and red as far as the eye could see in the cavernous bowl of the Workers' Stadium. 

The 31-year-old was a member of the side that went down to Japan at the semi-final stage in Lebanon, and the sweet relief on his face betrayed dreams of revenge.  With honours even at the half, it was anyone's title for the taking. 

Storm clouds gather

Iranian players including Yahya Golmohammadi, left, celebrate after defeating Bahrain to take third place in the Asian Cup soccer tournament in Beijing's Workers' Stadium Friday Aug. 6, 2004. Iran won the match 4-2. (AFP Photo/Greg Baker)
Greg Baker
Twenty minutes into the second period though, came controversy.  The ball is in the net, the blue-clad Japanese are celebrating…but surely the last touch had come off Nakata's hand.  Latching on to a corner at the far post, the player looked to have clearly pushed the ball over the line with his hand.  But amid furious protests from the Chinese players and a slithering round of vengeful whistles, boos and clenched fists from the crowd - the goal stood.  

With the motivation of ages old enmity, the injustice of a goal that should have been called back, and a roaring, impatient crowd, the Chinese surged forward in search of a crucial equaliser.  But it was not to be their day, and pressing desperately they were caught once more on the counter with their rearguard exposed.  Taamada's injury-time goal finally signalled the end of brave China's valiant fight. 

Fiery boss Haan refused to accept his silver medal after the match.  "I'm very disappointed and especially sorry for the good fans of China to lose a game that we should not have lost," he said.  "Their first goal came off a free kick that should have been awarded to us, the second goal was a handball and their third goal should not have been allowed as there had been a foul on Sun Jihai."

Fascinating Asia
On Saturday, Ali Karimi became joint top scorer as three-time Asian champions Iran went on to grab a consolation bronze in a goal-littered, overly rough third-place match against Bahrain.  Even after being reduced to 10 men, Iran looked the finer of the two sides as they roared to a 4-2 win. 

A brace from old reliable Ali Daei had the Iranians on their way, and Karimi's strike in the 52nd minute brought his China 2004 tally to five - even with Bahrain's Alaa Hubail as the tournament's top scorer.

Despite the defeat that saw three dismissals, Bahrain's fourth-place finish represents their best ever performance at the continental finals. 

In a tournament of shocks, surprises and rising stars though, it proved the old short passing masters, the 'Brazilians of Asia' who triumphed in the end.
View the tournament's official website