After an intriguing first round of matches in the third stage of Asian preliminaries for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, football predictably dominated headlines right across the continent.
Even in the Far East, where the fixtures took place on the eve of the traditional Lunar New Year, the South Africa 2010 qualifiers played a major part in enhancing the ambience for this most important of festivals.
*Festivities and football * In Seoul, although there were precious few copies of newspapers being sold in a city that all but shut down for the celebrations, the country's leading news agency, Yonhap, was quick to report on Huh Jung-Moo's side's 4-0 victory over Turkmenistan. Much of their excitement centred on Kwak Tae-Hwi, whose opening goal not only kick-started Korea Republic's goal-scoring wave but also ended an embarrassing 549-minute international goal drought, and saw the defender immediately heralded as an emerging star.
"The hero to end the goal draught was neither a player from the English Premiership, nor an ace striker of the K-league," wrote Yonhap. "It was the 27-year-old Chunnam Dragons defender who, despite his late international debut last week in a friendly with Chile, made it with a 43rd-minute header against the Central Asians."
Another player who found his name making the headlines was veteran midfielder Seol Ki-Hyeon, who had a hand in three of South Koreans' four goals, setting up Kwak for the opener before completing a brace of his own in the second half. After figuring prominently in the team that reached the semi-finals in Korea/Japan 2002, Seol has proved his pedigree and, as such, his return to form was widely welcomed.
"Right winger Seol Ki-Hyun stole the show with his trademark crosses and sharp shoots," Sports Seoul Daily commented in a report. "It had taken a year and four months for the Fulham midfielder to break his duck since scoring against Chinese Taipei in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier in September 2006."
In neighbouring China, where the Lunar New Year festival originated, the FIFA World Cup qualifiers also attracted widespread attention. Hundreds of millions of people across the world's most populous nation, who traditionally spend this occasion watching one of CCTV's more recreational programs, chose instead to savour the drama taking place in Dubai, where their side were battling their way to a 1-1 draw with Iraq.
One Shanghai-based newspaper, the Oriental Sports Daily, best illustrated such an atmosphere: "Nothing could make people so intrigued as football on the eve, even the traditional program on TV."
As for the final result, it didn't so much set off the new year celebrations as provoke national debate about whether this should be seen as a point gained, or two points dropped. Despite holding the reigning Asian champions in their opening away fixture for a precious point, the fact that Iraq played a large portion of the match with just 10 men ensured that the result was unlikely to be greeted with any joy. Competition Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, quoted veteran defender Li Weifeng as saying: "A win would have been the ideal result."
*An heir to Hiddink * Over in Australia, where Guus Hiddink is still revered for steering the Socceroos to their first FIFA World Cup finals in 32 years, it seems a rightful heir to the respected Dutchman has been unearthed in the shape of Pim Verbeek. A 3-0 victory against Qatar in Verbeek's first major match in charge certainly represented the best possible way to ease Hiddink's former assistant's into the hotseat.
"There is still a long way to go before the fans in Australia can start muttering 'Guus who?'" wrote The Australian. "But Pim Verbeek last night went some way to delivering the message that the right man is at the helm."
The emphatic win marked Australia out as the early favorites to win an imposing group that also features China and Iraq. With five matches remaining, Verbeek and his team may still have a long way to go if they are to advance to the final, ten-strong round of qualifers. But the The Australian's tribute, entitled 'Verbeek's Socceroos fire first salvo', reached the conclusion that he should prove more than able to carry on Hiddink's fine work.
"Verbeek said he is not a Hiddink clone, but having worked under the great man, it is safe to say he could not have walked away from the experience without gaining a wealth of knowledge. The Socceroos played the sort of football Hiddink would have been proud of."