The 2015 edition of the AFC Asian Cup proved to be a huge success both on and off the pitch, with host nation Australia finishing atop the 16-nation field following three weeks of intense competition. Strong, colourful crowds enjoyed attacking football amid a host of fascinating sub-plots led by Iraq and United Arab Emirates’ surprise runs to the semi-finals, Palestine’s joyful debut and much more. FIFA.com looks back at ten highlights from Australia 2015.
*A contest for the ages *
A match-up between historic rivals Iran and Iraq where passage to the semi-final was on the line promised much. To say it delivered on that promise would be an understatement of massive proportions. By the end many commentators were calling it the most dramatic match in Asian Cup history. Six goals, three comebacks, a red card and a 119th-minute equaliser were all part of a chaotic and, at times, wild contest that took exactly three hours to find a winner. The contest finally concluded with a marathon penalty shoot-out that featured 16 kicks before Iraq finally triumphed over one of the tournament favourites.
*Emirati mop-top steals the show
*The tournament produced several headline-grabbing names, but none caught the eye quite as much as United Arab Emirates’ showman Omar Abdulrahman. His football arsenal includes an apparently limitless array of mesmerising flicks and deft passes that seem more at home in a video game. The Al Ain No10, unmistakable with his expansive mop of curly hair, was instrumental in helping UAE to the semi-finals in one of the tournament’s feelgood stories.
*Palestine’s proud debut *
Ahead of the tournament expanding to 24 teams in 2019, there was just one debutant nation among the 16-team field at Australia 2015. And Palestine quickly became a neutrals’ favourite displaying a rare passion that belied the troubles experienced in their homeland. A healthy contingent of Palestinian diaspora attended each of their three group games taking joy in the occasion as much as the result. Though they conceded 11 goals - the most at the tournament – one of the most celebrated moments of the entire competition was their maiden goal at this level scored by Yousef Al-Rawashdeh who thus secured his place in the history books of Palestinian football.
*Crowds flock amid colour *
The success of the tournament on the field was clear, but so too there was a triumph off the field. Crowds flocked to matches bringing a celebratory and vibrant atmosphere. The average attendance exceeded 20,000 with eight matches sold out, including three non-Australia matches. Equally impressive was the total attendance for matches not featuring the Socceroos which reached nearly 400,000 spectators.
Roos bound towards new era
The tournament win suggest Australia have finally found a new group of players to replace the golden generation from the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. There were positive signs at last year’s World Cup in Brazil, but Ange Postecoglou’s young side reached a new level during January with their attacking brand of football reaping a tournament high 14 goals. And victory at the Asian Cup means the Socceroos will have a further opportunity for growth by participating in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
*Decisive margins *
Australia 2015 produced several fascinating statistics. However, none were more unlikely than a run of 24 matches without a draw during the entire group stage, even though 14 matches ended with just a one-goal margin. Almost predictably, the opening match of the knockout stage went to extra time, as did two of the other three quarter-finals.
*Gulf Cup curse *
Qatar went into the tournament with high hopes after winning the Gulf Cup of Nations in November. However they crashed to three straight defeats and their early elimination mirrored that of Kuwait and United Arab Emirates who both failed to progress to the knockout stage during the past two tournaments despite starting as Gulf kings.
*Korea Republic’s reinvention
*While Korea Republic fell narrowly shy of breaking their 55-year Asian Cup drought, their anguish will be assuaged by the significant growth of the team under new coach Uli Stielike. The 1982 West Germany World Cup defender assumed the reins in the wake of the side’s inconsistent showing at Brazil 2014. And the performances at Australia 2015 were a sure sign of a team on the up. The Taeguk Warriors’ defence remained unbreached for five matches until the final, and they were also the only side to defeat champions Australia.
*Japan’s shock failure *
No team had more pressure entering the tournament than Japan. Winners in four of the past six tournaments, their star-studded roster had reason for optimism. After finishing with a perfect record in the group stage Japan surprisingly stumbled in the quarter-final as United Arab Emirates somehow held on for a 1-1 draw before prevailing on penalties. And in echoes of the Italy’s experience in the 1994 World Cup Final it was the team superstars – Keisuke Hondo and Shinji Kagawa – who missed crucial spot-kicks in the shoot-out.
*Homegrown mentors *
A feature of the tournament was the success of teams managed by homegrown coaches. Title-winning coach Ange Postecoglou was a notable example after following in the footsteps of several international Socceroo appointments. Dubai-born Mahdi Ali similarly impressed at the helm of United Arab Emirates, with the UAE managed by some 20 international coaches over the past three decades.