Ultimately, Australia, Iran and Korea Republic seized places at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in their concluding fourth-round matches in Asian Zone qualifying. They did so, however, in wildly contrasting fashions.
The Iranians managed a magnificent 1-0 victory in Ulsan to go through as Group A winners, though the South Koreans, despite that loss, snuck through on goal difference from Uzbekistan. The Australians, meanwhile, were expected to have no trouble securing the win they needed to progress at home to a very youthful Iran. However, it took an 83rd-minute header from substitute Joshua Kennedy to earn them a 1-0 win that sent the Socceroos to their third successive FIFA World Cup as Group B runners-up behind Japan.
"It was frustrating watching from the bench for the last few games and hoping to get on," towering forward Kennedy, who connected with Mark Bresciano’s inch-perfect cross five minutes after entering the fray, told FIFA.com post-match. "It almost seemed like destiny or my time to shine. It all worked perfectly."
In hindsight, Holger Osieck's tactical change proved a masterstroke which eventually salvaged his hopes. But when he sent on Kennedy with 12 minutes left, it looked a bold decision that stunned all. After all, it was the 30-year-old's first international in 18 months, and the man he replaced was none other than the talismanic Tim Cahill. Fortunately for Australia, the German coach’s gamble paid off, earning him plenty of praise across a country now in celebration.
"I know what I'm doing,” Osieck said. “I'm close to the players and I'm close to the situation. You have to understand that no player ever wants to be taken off, but it's my discretion as a coach to make substitutions."
Indeed, the victory saw the under-pressure coach turn out a savior, with people beginning to liken him to Guus Hiddink, who guided Australia to the Round of 16 at Germany 2006.
"A lot of credit goes to the boss," said Cahill. "Japan, Jordan, today – to execute it the way he’s done, it was genius. If it was Hiddink you’d give him the credit, so I’d like to see [Osieck] get the credit now."
Like Australia, Iran overcame a series of unexpected upsets, including losing at home to Uzbeksitan and a shock defeat to Lebanon, en route to sealing their fourth FIFA World Cup appearance. Trailing Korea Republic by a point, they defended gallantly throughout to dismiss the hosts' onslaught, with Reza Ghoochannejhad grabbing the only goal with a solo effort. Having weathered an incessant storm in the process, Carlos Queiroz cut a relieved figure after his qualifying mission was completed.
He said: "This was a hard match, but we knew that we were going to be playing well as a team. The pressure was on our side, but fortunately my team played with confidence and care. We entered this match determined to win it and I had my faith in the players."
Hong time for the South Koreans?
It proved to be, though, a different story for Korea Republic, whose qualification was only confirmed by Uzbekistan's 5-1 home defeat of Qatar – a result which saw Choi Kanghee's side edge the Central Asians by one on goal difference.
While reaching their eighth consecutive FIFA World Cup came as a massive achievement for the country, the Iran loss – their first home qualifying defeat since 1977 – sent a warning shot to the authorities. In a statement published today, the Korean Football Association (KFA) announced they had accepted Choi's wish to resign and named a few candidates as his potential successor, with former Taeguk Warriors ace Hong Myungbo, who guided the national team to bronze at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012, the most notable.
KFA vice-President Huh Jungmoo said: "Hong participated in the World Cup four times, both as a player and a coach. He did well at the last Olympics as well."