SEOUL, South Korea
Match-fixing, related suicides, corruption and other assorted controversies could not prevent 2011 from being overall a good year for Asian football, as the continent’s prominence in the global game continued to grow.
The previous year ended with Qatar shocking the world by being awarded the 2022 World Cup and just a few days into 2011 the tiny nation was once again on center stage as it hosted the Asian Cup.
Although most matches were played in half-empty stadiums,the football was of a relatively high standard, with Japan, Australia and South Korea cementing their reputations as Asia’s best teams.
Japan eventually lifted the trophy with a 1-0 win in the final over Australia. It was the first of two major successes for the country with the women’s team lifting the World Cup in the summer.
“We are all delighted at the JFA at the success that Japanese football has had in 2011,” Kozo Tashima, the vice president of the Japan Football Association, told Associated Press earlier this month. “The year started well in Asia in January, we had a global success in July which thrilled the national after a difficult time.”
That “difficult time” was the period following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left 5,839 dead and 3,647 missing, with the local J-League suspended for six weeks.
In April, South Korea was in the headlines for a huge match-fixing scandal that saw over 60 players, past and present, indicted for accepting money to rig the results of K-League and cup games. The scandal caused one former player and one team coach to commit suicide.
Both Japan and South Korea continued to provide players to the big European leagues at increasingly young ages.Stars such as Shinji Okazaki and Takashi Usami went to the Bundesliga while Korea’s striker Ji Dong-won headed to Sunderland in the English Premier League.
It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. The continent’s increasing wealth means that its clubs can compete with the western giants in the transfer market and a growing number of international stars have headed eastwards.
One of the biggest moves came in September when Asamoah Gyan, the main striker of English Premier League team Sunderland, suddenly joined Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates on loan for a year.
In December, Nicolas Anelka left Chelsea to join Shanghai Shenhua. The Chinese club has reportedly offered the former French international $14 million a year.
The striker follows in the footsteps of Argentina’s Dario Conca who cost Guangzhou Evergrande $10 million in the summer. Both players are among the highest-paid in the world and the moves show that the continent is on the rise according to Zhang Jilong, the acting president of the Asian Football Confederation.
“It is always good to see world-class players signing up for Asian clubs,” Zhang told AP. “Football fans around the world will pay more attention to Asian soccer because of these big signings. It also proves that the gap between Asian football and the best of world football is closing fast.”
In November Zhang presented the Asian Champions League trophy to Al Sadd of Qatar to end five years of Japanese and South Korean domination.
The triumph was not without controversy. Al Sadd lost both legs of its quarterfinal against Sepahan but still progressed to the last four as the Iranians fielded an ineligible player. In the semifinal, the Qatari club scored a goal that was perceived as unsporting against Suwon Bluewings and a massive brawl ensued. Al Sadd, nicknamed Al Badd in Korea, defeated Jeonbuk Motors in the final.
On the national team level, Asia has been focused on qualification for the 2014 World Cup. One game of the third and penultimate round remains but already China, North Korea and United Arab Emirates have fallen by the wayside.
In earlier stages, Palestine played its first ever World Cup qualification match on home soil defeating Afghanistan in the first round only to lose in the second round to Thailand. In the third round, Lebanon hogged the headlines by defeating South Korea 2-1 in November to move second in the group.
That loss, against a team more than 100 places lower in the world rankings, cost South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae his job. Cho was fired in December just shortly before Sebastiao Lazaroni was dismissed from Qatar. The Brazilian was the third man to manage the team in 2011.
Coaches come and coaches go and some big names arrived in Asia to take control of national teams. The biggest belonged to former Netherlands and Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard who took over Saudi Arabia and new Iran boss Carlos Queiroz, ex-Real Madrid and Portugal head coach.
Asia’s biggest name off the field also departed. For much of the year, the AFC has been without a president. The continent’s leader of nine years, Mohammed Bin Hammam announced in March that he would challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the May election for the world’s number one soccer job.
Bin Hammam withdrew from the race after accusations of vote-buying. In July, FIFA’s Ethics Committee handed the official a life ban from football. Bin Hammam has appealed but regardless of the outcome in that hearing, a return to the head of the AFC is unlikely. The biggest political issue of 2012 will be the jockeying to see who will replace him.