The meeting between Japan and Australia in the Asian Cup final has more meanings than just a game to decide the best in the AFC.
A couple of decades ago, both of the Japanese and the Australian soccer were mired in mediocrity. Like soccer in North America, they both had to play second fiddle to other sports; baseball and martial arts in the land of the rising sun and Aussie-rules football, rugby and cricket downunder.
But the increase in the popularity and the economic potential of soccer led to massive changes in both countries. Like in the USA, the formation of professional leagues was a huge catalyst for growing the game.
In Japan, they formed the J-league in 1993 and since then the sport took off very fast. They qualified to every world cup since their debut in 1998 and reached the second round in 2002 and 2010. Also they made it to the Asian Cup finals every time since their first appearance in 1988.
This is their 4th appearance in the final in the last 6 tournaments and they are undefeated in the title games. They are seeking a record fourth cup.
In Australia, the situation was a little different. There were other hindrances to the development of soccer.
Because of the lack of opportunity to play professionally, their players had to travel across the world to ply their trade. Most of them ended up in Europe. This had put a lot of strain on players because of the long trip.
Also, as a member of Oceania, they have to contend with playing very inferior opponents, with the exception of New Zealand. Many European clubs would not release their players for such useless games.
As a member of Oceania, they won the continental championship 4 times in 6 attempts (between 1980 and 2004), but when it comes to the world cup, they managed to qualify to the finals only twice (in 1974 and 2006).
After the formation of the A-league in 2004, Australia successfully lobbied with FIFA to move to AFC in 2006. Initially, some Asian countries voiced their opposition but then, FIFA rewarded them with easier WC playoff game. The fifth Asian team, now, plays the Oceania representative instead of the CONCACAF fourth team.
It was a win win situation to both. AFC benefited economically and Australia benefited with better standard and worldwide exposure. The meteoric rise of Australian soccer culminated in reaching the Asian cup final for the first time in only their second attempt.
Australia is going to the final on a high after they disposed of Uzbekistan 6-0, but they will have a difficult task against Japan.
Japan’s fluid attacking soccer that features Barcelona-like style of short and low passes with fast and energetic movement on and off the ball will be too much to handle for the Aussies.
Tim Cahill, who started wonderfully, is not the same after his injury against Bahrain. Luckily, though, Harry Kewell has picked up his game and he is playing very well and scoring goals (3 in 5 games).
But if they win the cup, it would be because of a very organized defense and a great goalkeeping. They allowed only 1 goal in 5 games, by far the tournament best. Japan, on the other hand, allowed 6 goals.
On the offensive side of matter, they both have 13 goals in 6 games. Japan apparently lost the service of Kagawa with a broken foot. They again have to hope that Okazaki and Maeda will step it up and help Honda and company reach the summit.
They met only once before at the Asian cups. Japan won 4-3 on PKs after drawing 1-1 in 2007 QF. The winners this time will represent Asia in the confederation cup 2013 in Brazil. Both already qualified to Australia 2015.
A day earlier, there will be the small issue of deciding the third place team.
Unlike the World Cups, AFC had decided to make this game more meaningful. The winners of this game will qualify directly to Australia 2015.
It’s a chance for Uzbekistan to redeem itself after the demoralizing defeat by Australia. It’s also a chance for South Korea to vent some frustration from their exit at the hand of their arch nemesis.
It is the Uzbeks first third place game but the Koreans are in it for the third time in the last 4 cups. They won twice before (2000 and 2007). They also ended third in 1964 when it was played as a round robin final. Park Ji Sung may sit out this game for minor injury.
They have never met before at the Asian cups.
Third Place – South Korea vs. Uzbekistan: Friday; 10 am EST
Final – Australia vs. Japan: Saturday; 10 am EST
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