Rise of the Asian minnows
When the draw for the group phase of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011 was made, most experts agreed that former continental champions Saudi Arabia and Japan would have little difficulty in advancing from Group B.
After all, both sides are three-time winners of the competition, with the Saudis making their eighth appearance in the finals and the Japanese their third. In contrast, Syria and Jordan, the two other teams making up the group, have little Asian Cup experience to speak of. While the Syrians qualified for the first time in 15 years, Qatar 2011 is only the Jordanians’ second appearance in the continental showpiece.
Given their respective records, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the Saudi and Japanese camps make bullish pronouncements before the competition got underway.
“I don’t think we’ll have any problems in this group,” declared the Blues Technical Director Hiromi Hara, while the Green Falcons’ supremo Jose Peseiro was no less confident. Identifying a tournament win as his goal, the Portuguese said: “I want the team to play a Saudi style of football. I’m not worried how the other teams play.”
Moreover, the unfancied Jordanians had failed to win any of their last three warm-up games, while Syria decided to sack their coach less than a month before the start of the tournament and put Romanian Valeriu Tita in charge.
It came as quite a shock, then, when Jordan held Japan to a 1-1 draw in the opening game in the section, Adnan Hamad’s charges even taking the lead through Hasan Abdalfatah and surprising everyone with the quality of their play. Indeed, had it not been for a stoppage-time strike by Maya Yoshida, the Middle Eastern side would have secured a famous win.
“I’m not at all happy with the result,” lamented Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni afterwards. “We didn’t control possession as we should have done, although the Jordanians did defend well and put in a good team performance too.”
There was another upset in store later that same day as Syria downed the Saudis 2-1, Abdelrazaq Al Hussain scoring both goals for the Qasioun Eagles. As an upshot of that stunning defeat, the Saudi FA decided to relieve Peseiro of his duties.
No less surprised by the scoreline was Syria coach Tita: “I wasn’t expecting that, although I did expect the team to perform well. We played a great game despite the fact I haven’t spent that much time with the side. We’ve got a lot of talented players here and that’s why we won.”
Just to show their opening performances were no fluke, the two supposed makeweights in the group excelled in their second outings just a few days later.
Taking on the Saudis, who had replaced Peseiro with Nasser Al Johar - the man who came in at exactly the same stage of the 2000 finals before leading them to the runners-up spot - the Jordanians staged another ambush. Baha’a Abdul-Rahman’s first-half goal proved enough to give them the three points and condemn the pre-tournament favourites to an unexpectedly early exit.
“It was a tough game against a strong side that had no option but to go for the win,” said an elated Hamad after the final whistle. “I’d like to congratulate the players for being so brave. Even so, we still have a lot more to offer and we still feel ambitious. I hope we can go as far as we possibly can in this tournament.”
Later in the day the overachieving Syrians looked set to secure an unexpected point against Japan. Yet, in a close-fought contest that yielded a penalty and a red card for each side, Tita’s men were eventually undone by a Keisuke Honda penalty eight minutes from time.
Despite the outcome, the Syrians’ Iraqi coach was in defiant mood. “Game three will be decisive,” he said. “We’re going to attack from the off and go for victory. We need to focus our attentions on that game and forget everything that’s happened up to now.”
Though the pundits have been taken aback by the quality of Syria and Jordan’s play, both sides are merely building on the recent achievements of their respective youth teams. Most of the current crop of Qasioun Eagles were on duty at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, while the Jordan side contains a sizeable contingent of the squad that represented the country at the next edition of the tournament in Canada two years later.
Their fate at Qatar 2011 will be decided tomorrow, when they go head-to-head at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium. It is a measure of their success in upsetting the odds that at least one of the Group B dark horses will be going through to the next round, an outcome few would have predicted when this rollercoaster section got under way.