Japan top Asia’s broadening pyramid

The 2014 edition of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup will be remembered for many reasons. The headlines will rightly be dominated by Japan’s long-awaited maiden continental conquest, but there were also numerous momentous events away from the final day trophy showdown.

The tournament, which was played in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, saw five tickets on offer for the newly-expanded 24-team FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Japan, Australia, China PR, Korea Republic and Thailand all booked passage to Canada 2015, with the latter set to appear on the world stage for the first time, becoming the first south-east Asian nation to do so.

There was a breakthrough too as Jordan made their debut, with the west Asian nation a welcome addition to the eight-team field. There were some tight scorelines between the traditional elite and the lesser lights, suggesting the continental disparity is starting to even out.

Nadeshiko blossoming The tournament concluded in perfect fashion with world champions Japan tackling continental queens Australia. Somewhat remarkably, Japan, despite their Women’s World Cup win three years ago, had never won the Asian crown in 13 previous attempts. Their tense 1-0 final win over the Matildas finally ended that run, in the process earning long overdue recognition for veteran midfielder Homare Sawa who, at 35, was likely having her final tilt at Asian glory.

It was, however, far from straightforward for Japan and their campaign wavered on several occasions. They had to come from two goals down to earn a share of the spoils in their opener against Australia, while they only prevailed over a rejuvenated China in the semi-final with an inconceivably late 122nd minute extra-time winner from impressive defender Azusa Iwashimizu.

After a first-half goal from the same player in the final, the Nadeshiko were under immense pressure against a youthful Australia but displayed their trademark resilience to prevail. Significantly, several stars from Germany 2011 were absent as Norio Sasaki continues to prepare for next year’s Women’s World Cup defence. “At the moment there is a gap between our players with World Cup and Olympic Games experience and these new young players,” said Sasaki. “The task for the next 12 months will be to combine the two groups into one unit if we want to have a successful World Cup next year.”

Australia are similarly looking to continue building after recently parting with coach Hesterine de Reus. Interim manager Alen Stajcic, who fielded six players aged 20 or younger in the final, is optimistic his team can succeed with further fine-tuning. “We will now focus on improving the levels of technique and execution so that we can take on the top teams,” Stajcic said. “And next time we meet Japan I hope we can push them even closer and get a victory.”

Contenders shine The tournament was also notable for the return of China as a force. Long-regarded as a powerhouse of women’s football, the former Women’s World Cup runners-up have fallen on lean times in recent years, missing out on qualification for Germany 2011. This time around they fell narrowly shy of a berth in the final but, despite several injury absentees, they secured third-place at the expense of an equally resurgent Korea Republic.

The Koreans ended their 12-year absence from the Women’s World Cup with their fourth-placed finish, having earlier topped China in Group B. Powerful striker Park Eun Sun proved a revelation, scoring six times to finish as top goalscorer on a countback ahead of China’s Yang Li. Park is one of the survivors from USA 2003 where she featured as a 16-year-old.

Much interest focused on the fifth-placed play-off. A new name was guaranteed inaugural passage to the Women’s World Cup, and a large and noisy crowd turned out to cheer the home side on what was a gala evening for Vietnamese women’s football. However, it was Thailand who ultimately prevailed with a slim 2-1 win. The fact that Thailand only narrowly held off the Philippines in pre-qualifying is another sign of the region’s increasing competitiveness.

Jordan’s debut showing indicated that west Asia can be a force to be reckoned in the years to come. Coached by Masahiko Okiyama, Jordan proved themselves to be a tough and resilient opponent. Captain Stephanie Al Naber scored one of the goals of the tournament, albeit controversially awarded, as holders Australia could only secure a 3-1 winning margin.

“It was really good experience and a good achievement for my team at the same time,” Okiyama said. “To be in the finals is a good step for us, of course we had dreams to go to the World Cup but unfortunately this time we could not achieve that and I hope we will be there next time.”