2008 review: The year may not be remembered too fondly by future West Asian football historians.
West finished second best
The year 2008 may not be remembered too fondly by future West Asian football historians. It was a year when, on the pitch at least, the eastern fringes of the giant continent, as well as Australia, were in the ascendancy. Could West Asia be without a 2010 place at the World Cup for the first time since 1974? It is unlikely but could happen. Australia and Japan have taken control of Group One, leaving Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Qatar scrambling to fill third place and a stab at reaching South Africa through two play-offs. The Australian team looks to have few problems with West Asian teams and have defeated Qatar three times this year alone.
Qatar were at the centre of the one of the biggest Asian stories. In the third round of qualification in March, the team, one that upsets many with its policy of naturalising foreign players, fielded a former Brazilian national named Emerson against Iraq. Qatar won but it later became apparent that Emerson was ineligible as he had played for the Brazilian Under 20 team. Iraq protested but on June 9, Fifa's disciplinary committee ruled that while Emerson was in fact ineligible, Qatar were not to blame as they were unaware of the player's past. Iraq took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but the appeal was rejected.
To make matters worse for Iraq, who won the Asian Cup in 2007, Qatar squeezed through to the final round while Iraq have only the 2009 Confederations Cup to look forward to. The UAE also only just made the cut, edging past Syria on goal difference. The team's limitations were shown in the final round with just one point from four games. The departure of Bruno Metsu to Qatar after Jorge Fossati left the Doha hotseat did not help. As it stands, home defeats to Saudi Arabia and North Korea and an away thrashing in Seoul mean that dreams of 2010 are virtually over.
That win helped put South Korea on top of Group Two after a great win in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis lose their next match in North Korea and Iran do not beat the south in February, the Korea teams will be clear at the top. East Asia was again top in the Asian Champions League. For the first time since the competition was re-formatted in 2003, a West Asian team didn't make the final - in fact, the region had no teams in the last four. The competition was won by Gamba Osaka to keep the oddly-shaped trophy in East Asia for the third successive year.
The continental club competition will be re-revised next season with the number of teams increased from 28 to 32 and the prize money upped to US$2million (Dh7.3m). Japan, China, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia all have four teams while the UAE have three. The AFC have been busy off the pitch too and shocked hosts Malaysia by inviting bids from any member association interested in becoming the new home to the governing body. Singapore, the UAE and Qatar are interested but there is a significant amount of opposition to the move from associations outside West Asia.
Relations between Malaysia and the AFC have deteriorated and there was a public slanging match between current chief Mohamed bin Hammam and his Malaysian predecessor Peter Velappan. "Sadly, the AFC looks to be moving away from democracy and instead it is leaning towards authoritarianism, which is rocking the stability of this institution," said Velappan. "He is a conspiracy man," bin Hammam retorted. "He has conspired against all the presidents before me and he is doing it again now in the same way."
The proposed relocation was not the only issue which has split the continent. The English Premier League's proposed '39th Game' was better received in the west than the east. Korea, Japan and Australia were lukewarm at best at the thought of an annual competitive match being played on their shores. Countries like Qatar and the UAE were much happier. The idea seemed to be a non-starter in the face of opposition abroad and anger at home but with the support of bin Hammam, it was resurrected in December.
In the meantime, Asians are showing their interest in the Premier League by buying some of it. The football world was shocked when, on the final day of the summer transfer window, a Sheikh Mansour-lead group bought Manchester City and then signed the Brazilian striker Robinho. Indian investors have been linked to Newcastle United and West Ham United. On the pitch too, there was action for many of Asia's best. Park Ji-sung starred as Manchester United won the English and European championships. Arabian stars came close. Iraq's Nashat Akram caught the eye of Manchester City and Yasser Al-Qahtani of Saudi Arabia had a trial with the same club.
Shunsuke Nakamura was in good form again for Celtic while Iran's Javad Nekounam and Masound Shojaei are trying to help Osasuna escape relegation in Spain. As well as the big names playing out west, there were big names engraved on the championship trophies out east as Kashima Antlers, Suwon Bluewings and Shandong Luneng won the respective leagues of Japan, South Korea and China. In Iran, Tehran giants Persepolis won the league in the 96th minute of the final game of the season while Al Hilal won title number 11 in Saudi Arabia, Al Gharafa took the prize in Qatar and Al Shabab won the UAE league.
Central Asia was not to be left out. Uzbekistan football was suddenly placed on the global football map. Champions Bunyodkor not only signed Brazilian legends Rivaldo and Zico but came close to getting Samuel Eto'o from Barcelona. Their midfielder Server Djeparov was Asian Player of the Year. In the south, the Maldives beat giant neighbours India to take the South Asian championship while Thailand and Singapore look set to meet in the final of the South East Asia's biennial tournament.
An year of action, which leaves the West playing catch-up. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org