Australia enters Asia's football elite

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Sydney, Feb 1: Following 32 matches, 85 goals, inspired individual performances and impressive team showings, Australia's first taste of hosting the Asian Cup football has proved a massive success.

Across five cities on Australia's east coast, bumper crowds were treated to a spectacle of Asian football that delivered on its promise to live up to the hype, reports Xinhua.

Australian football team celebrate with their trophy

Average crowds reached over 34,000 throughout knockouts while a sell-out crowd of 76,385 attended the final in Sydney Saturday, taking the tournament average to more than 20,000 per game and proving Australia's love and commitment to sport, in particular football.

And their team did make them proud.

After a nervous 120 minutes, Australia finally secured their first piece of major international silverware with a 2-1 victory over South Korea in the final.

Player of the Tournament Massimo Luongo was impressive in attack and influenced greatly from midfield. Meanwhile, Goalkeeper of the Tournament Mat Ryan was again rock solid in defence.

Not deterred by a late equaliser in the final, Australia regrouped and found a deserving late goal from James Troisi, one that would forever etch his name in the history books.

South Korea were gallant but, despite having one the best defensive records in the tournament, failed to achieve their first Asian Cup triumph in 55 years. Instead, they were left lamenting an abundance of missed opportunities as Australia celebrated.

It was a tournament of upsets with neither of Asia's No.1 or No.2 ranked sides progressing past the quarter-finals. Instead, Iran and Japan were swept aside by Iraq and the United Arab Emirates respectively, as both continued to stamp their authority and give supporters a glimpse of what they are capable of.

Iraq, led by veteran Younus Mahmood and Yaser Kasim in midfield, were hardly expected to survive a group that consisted of Japan, Jordan and Palestine.

But, after navigating a tricky first match against Jordan and surviving with a 1-0 victory, a repeat of their 2007 heroics suddenly beckoned, as did a highly anticipated quarter-final against Iran.

Following a 3-3 draw, Iraq would prevail on penalties, advancing to the semi-final. Ultimately their dream would end there at the hands of South Korea but they left Australia carrying the respect of the continent.

Another ambitious team, UAE showcased the rise of football in the gulf with fluid attacking displays. Led by Omar Abdulrahman and Golden Boot winner Ali Mabkhout, UAE caused the tournament's biggest shock when they sent Japan packing via a penalty shootout in the quarters.

However, not even the individual talents of Omar could inspire them in the semi-final against Australia, which the Socceroos won 2-0.

China was another to surprise. A young squad, led by Alain Perrin, was exceptionally well-organised and defeated Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and North Korea on their way to the knockouts.

Despite a gallant showing, Australia proved too strong in the final eight. But, capitalising on the growth of football in China, Perrin's side appears destined to go from strength-to-strength.

Palestine may not have picked up any points from their first ever major international tournament but they did meet many well-wishers along the way. Hitting five-figure crowds in every match, they will leave Australia with vital lessons learned.

But where there are good news stories, there are bound to be lamentable campaigns and none more so than that of Japan and manager Javier Aguirre.

Coming into the tournament with a shadow cast over them due to speculation regarding Aguirre's future, not even a squad packed with household names could find an extra level once out of the group stages.

The class of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa may have been enough for Japan to qualify for the quarter-final without dropping a point, but the energy of UAE proved too difficult to overcome.

It was a similar story for Iran. Swathes of fans had followed Carlos Queiroz's side, who entered the Asian Cup with the best ranking, but instead they appeared lethargic. A defeat to Iraq will leave them with a bitter taste in their mouths on the return home.

But there won't be many sides feeling similar after a tournament of goodwill that has well and truly solidified Australia's place among Asia's elite.

IANS

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