The odds-on favourites, Japan, were ousted and failed to successfully defend their title. The 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011 Asian champions surprisingly lost 5-4 on penalties, after a 1-1 (1-1, 0-0) draw over 120 minutes, to the team of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the quarter-finals. In front of 20,000 spectators at the Australia Stadium in Sydney, the Dortmund player Shinji Kagawa proved the jinx for the “Blue Samurai”, for the midfielder missed the decisive penalty. A goal would have led the Japanese into the semi-finals. Afterwards Ismail Ahmed scored for the Emirates from the spot to ensure a sensational victory. The UAE team will meet hosts Australia in the semi-final in Newcastle. The “Socceroos” defeated China 2-0 (0-0) in the quarter-finals before 46,000 spectators in Brisbane, with 35-year-old Tim Cahill, who plays with the Red Bulls New York in the Major League Soccer, scoring both goals.
South Korea against Iraq will be the second semi-final at the stadium in Sydney, one of the main venues at the 2000 Olympic Summer Games. The South Koreans defeated Uzbekistan 2-0 (0-0, 0-0) after extra time in the quarter-finals before a crowd of 23,500 in Melbourne. Heung-Min Son of Bayer Leverkusen scored both goals. Iraq won their quarter-final against neighbours Iran in an extremely thrilling match. The final result was 10-9 for Iraq. With it 3-3 (1-1, 0-1) after extra time, this encounter also needed to be decided on penalties. At 7-6 Iraq, the 2007 Asian champions, finally triumphed over Iran, the 2014 World Cup participants.
Salam Shakir netted the decisive penalty after Iran’s Vahid Amiri had hit a post. In the consistently changing extra time Iraq twice took the lead, with goals by Younis Mahmoud (93rd) and Dhurgham Ismail (116th, penalty). But three-time Asian champions Iran equalised despite being a man down (Mehrdad Pouladi of Qatar club Al-Shahaniya was sent off in the 43rd minute) through goals from Morteza Pouraliganji (103rd) and Reza Ghoochannejhad (119th). The Iraqis now hope to reach the final, if for nothing else to convey some happiness to the continually crisis-hit people at home. “Our country can well do with such joy. We will work hard for victory”, said Waled Salim Al-Lami. On paper, however, the South Koreans are the favourites. The “Taegeuk Warriors” at present hold 69th position in the world rankings, 45 places ahead of Iraq. In the Asian Federation (AFC) South Korea are ranked third, Iran 13th.
Australia and South Korea will prompt close perusal of the semi-finals by scouts from foreign clubs, especially those in Germany and England. Besides Son, who was celebrated as “Sonaldo” after his brilliant performance against Uzbekistan, Joo-Ho Park of 1. FSV Mainz 05 is another Bundesliga professional in the squad of the two-time Asian champions (1956, 1960). And Di-Ru Cha, the Frankfurt-born son of South Korea’s former star Bum-Kun Cha, played with Dusseldorf, Freiburg, Koblenz, Mainz, Frankfurt and Bielefeld before his present contract with 1. FC Seoul. Son, Park and Cha were in the starting-eleven of South-Korea’s German national coach Uli Stielike in the quarter-finals. The now 60-year-old, former star of Borussia Moenchengladbach and Real Madrid, has been national coach since October 1, 2014. “If we get into the final we will have chances to win the title, but first of all we have to achieve that”, said Stielike, who worked as assistant to Erich Ribbeck with the German national team during the 1990s.
Robbie Kruse of Bayer Leverkusen, who rarely gets a game with the club, is a regular with the Australian team. Matthew Lecki, of Second Bundesliga top club FC Ingolstadt, is also in the starting-eleven. Of the English clubs, Davidson (West Bromwich Albion), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) and Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town) started against China. But despite the current successes, coach Postecoglou is not a happy man. Not because of the results by his young team, but because of speculation that he would lose his job if he doesn’t reach the final. “The most difficult task I have is that I have always to explain myself. That’s incredibly frustrating”, said the 49-year-old, Greek-born coach. But he thinks he has the fans behind him. “The spectators understand that we have a really strong team. They appreciate the work we do. We can develop into a great team”. Opponents UAE will be trying to reach the final for the second time since 1996. The national team of the Gulf State competed for the first and only time at the 1990 World Cup finals. Their current team is ranked 80th in the world, 20 places above Australia, and is making a second appearance in the Asia Cup (they finished fourth in 2013).
While the professionals from Australia and South Korea will be missing from their English and German clubs for the competitive matches on January 31 and February 1, the surprising elimination of Japan triggered a certain relief among some Bundesliga clubs. Six players engaged in Germany have contracts with five Bundesliga clubs and can now play at the start of the second Bundesliga round after the winter break. They are Makoto Hasebe and Takashi Inui of Eintracht Frankfurt, Gotoku Sakai of VfB Stuttgart, Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund, Hiroshi Kiyotake of Hannover 96 and Shinji Okazaki of 1. FSV Mainz 05. The Mainz striker had to leave the pitch after one hour against the UAE, which prompted alarm bells at his German club. But the injury turned out to be minor, and the light muscular problems in his thigh should be cured quickly. There was great disappointment in Japan, especially as their team had already failed to meet expectations at the 2014 World Cup, when they were eliminated in the first round. But Mexican Javier Aguirre, who succeeded Italian Alberto Zaccheroni as national coach last August, should keep his job, according to the President of the Japanese Federation.