Australia triumphed over South Korea in the Asian Cup final yesterday to cap a remarkable period for a nation which is only just awakening to the possibilities that membership of the Asia set-up provides – on and off the field.
Inside three months Australia has catapulted itself to the forefront of the Asian football confederation, the world’s largest.
Watched by a 76,385-strong crowd, Australia’s 2-1 defeat of two-time champions South Korea in extra time at Sydney’s Olympic stadium was the country’s first Asian Cup title since moving to the Asian zone from Oceania in 2006.
Substitute James Troisi tapped home the winner after Kim Jin-hyeon could only parry striker Tomi Juric’s low cross just before the midway point of extra time.
Earlier, a superb long-range strike by Massimo Luongo just before halftime had put Australia ahead before South Korea’s standout player Son Hyeung-min equalised deep into second-half injury time to deny the hosts victory in regulation time.
South Korea, who had not conceded a goal until the final, have now lost their past four finals and have not won the tournament since 1960.
Australia’s rampant attack had notched a tournament-leading 12 goals in five games coming into the final but was largely muted in the first half as South Korea quickly settled and frequently found their way into the final attacking third.
However, Australia inflicted the first blow with Luongo’s stunning strike within seconds of half time. It was the 22-year-old Swindon Town midfielder’s second goal of the Asian Cup. He was named player of the tournament after the final.
Son was the standout player on the field and, despite missing difficult chances earlier in the match, made no mistake in the final minute when he blasted past Mat Ryan to send the match to extra time.
The exertion to score a leveller seemed to take the energy out of South Korea as the hosts looked fresher in the extra period and the match turned again on an exceptional piece of individual skill in the 105th minute.
Juric, who came on for Tim Cahill in the 63rd minute, back-heeled the ball between Kin Jin-su’s legs on the goal line and sent in a low cross which the goalkeeper could only block into the path of Troisi, who put the ball into the empty net.
The win continued a run of strong performances at the quadrennial continental championships for Australia, which includes a final appearance in 2011 where they eventually lost to Japan 1-0 in extra time.
“The goal should be for this confederation to break the European and South American monopoly on the World Cup,” said Australia coach Ange Postecoglou after guiding the Socceroos to their breakthrough victory. “This tournament here, it’s a great achievement but it’s not the end of the journey. It is the beginning for us.
“I’m not going to put any limits on this group of players. Whatever we do, we’ve set the standard here today.”
The Asian Cup was the first major football tournament to be hosted by Australia and provided some much-needed positive news after the controversial 2022 World Cup bidding process that saw Australia lose out to Qatar.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s arrival at the official medal presentation after the final triggered boos from home fans, eager to voice their displeasure at the tainted governing body. The tournament, though, was well supported by the general Australian public, with over 640,000 people attending the 32 games in five cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle – a 50 per cent increase on attendances at the previous edition in Qatar in 2011.
The organisers also boasted of record television audiences across the continent.
In China, Asia’s biggest market, the cumulative average viewing figure for the event was 182 million by the end of the semi-final stage and the cumulative reach totalled 950 million, according to the AFC.
Viewing figures in the host nation exceeded one million for Australia’s semi-final victory over the United Arab Emirates, making it one of the most widely watched football matches in the history of a country where the game still plays second fiddle to rugby league and Aussie Rules.
“I think it’s going to do a lot of things,” said Australia winger Mathew Leckie, who plays for second-tier German club FC Ingolstadt. “It’s incredible the amount of people that came tonight. For me I think it’s the biggest Australian success in sport.
“Champions of Asia, it’s quite incredible and you know you could see how much everyone loved tonight.”
At club level, Australia has also had a breakthrough year in Asian competition.
In November, Australia club side Western Sydney Wanderers, coached by former Socceroo Tony Popovic, claimed the country’s first Asian club-competition silverware by beating the more-fancied Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia 1-0 on aggregate in the Asian Champions League.
“We came into this confederation knowing it would be a huge challenge, the Matildas won the (women’s) Asian Cup (in 2010), then the Wanderers in the Champions League and now we’ve won,” Postecoglou said.
“I said from day one we won’t take a backward step from anyone. We don’t do it in another sport and we don’t do it in football.”