It was only in 1988 Japan first qualified for the Asian Cup. Then, in the first Asian Cup held in Qatar, the Blue Samurai finished bottom of a five-team group, taking a single point and failing to score a goal. Twenty-three years on and the tournament returned to Qatar with Japan as favorite, a billing it justified by winning a fourth tournament to become the most successful team in Asian history.
South Korea, East Asia's pioneers, must wonder what on earth has happened, as its look back to the day a little over half a century ago, when Moon Jung-Sik's goal against China won it its second Asian Cup. It has not lifted the trophy since, overhauled first by the west Asian giants of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and then by a rival far closer to home.
Not for the first time, South Korea could blame its luck. In three of the last four tournaments it has reached the semifinal, twice going out on penalties. This time, it looked, alongside Japan and Australia, one of the three best sides in the tournament, and there must always be a thought that had the centerforward Park Chu-Young not been ruled out by injury, it might have had the cutting edge to ease it past Japan. Where it impressed was in the interaction of its midfield five, with Ki Sung-Yueng and Lee Yong-Rae providing the platform for a highly fluid trident of Lee Chung-Yong, Koo Ja-Cheol and Park Ji-Sung. The latter looks likely to retire from international football, and his energy and selflessness will be sorely missed.
Australia is going through a process of rejuvenation and is still some way short of the force it was at the World Cup five years ago, but it was admirably solid and ruthless enough to take advantage when chances presented themselves or when, as happened in the semifinal, opponents capitulated. This is still an elderly squad, and it is hard to believe the likes of Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Sasa Ognenovski and Mark Schwarzer will still be around when it hosts the tournament in 2015.
What is striking is that none of the four semifinalists came from West Asia. The political influence of the western part of the confederation is stronger than it has ever been, but this was the first time since West Asian sides began to compete in 1968 that not a single one reached the last four. Saudi Arabia, for so long the power in Asian football, was a particular disappointment, losing all three group games and being thrashed by Japan. Iran impressed at times, but ended up being edged out by South Korea in their now traditional quarterfinal meeting (the two countries have met at that stage in each of the last five tournaments). Jordan and Syria exceeded expectations, and Bahrain and Iraq solid enough, which perhaps suggests at a greater breadth if not a greater depth of talent in the region than previously.
Qatar, with its legion of naturalized Africans and South Americans, continued its steady improvement. It pushed Japan close in the quarterfinal having recovered from defeat in its opening game to an Uzbekistan side that started the tournament superbly but became increasingly flat, apparently confused by the persistent tactical tinkering of its coach Vadim Abramov. For those hosts, though, this was at least as much about performance off the field as on it, with the tournament, perhaps unfairly, being regarded by some as a very early dress rehearsal for the country's hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
In that regard it did not excel, with
This was an Asian Cup with probably more depth than previous tournaments. Only
The question then is whether Asia's best nations can kick on to start regularly reaching the quarter- and semifinals of the World Cup. In that regard Japan's success is difficult to read. In some ways, this was probably the least convincing of its four Asian Cup wins, based less on the familiar virtues of control of possession and defensive discipline than on a resilience and self-belief that allowed it again and again to withstand pressure and find late goals.
The absence of Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa, probably its two best center backs, perhaps contributed to the defensive unease, but this was a Japan that played in a more hectic style than it used to. In a sense, that was needed, for there is often a feeling with
Shinji Kagawa was excellent in a creative capacity up to the semifinal, but disappointed against South Korea and suffered a broken bone in his foot. The two big names, Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo, were both involved only fitfully, and the two players most responsible for the victory were probably the left back, Yuto Nagatomo, and the magnificently composed holding midfielder Makoto Hasebe. A first-choice back four might provide the necessary balance, but this feels like a significant phase in the development of Japanese football, as a wave of more creative young players rises up and the old cautious approach evolves. With Australia in transition and west Asia in flux, it's an unpredictable time for Asian football in general.