The 2011 AFC Asian Cup saw the tournament head back to the desert as Qatar hosted the tournament for the second time.
2011 Asian Cup
Third place: South Korea
Fourth place: Uzbekistan
It was a tournament that served as an indicator for how the country would cope with the 2022 World Cup, but that also suffered from low attendances from games not involving the hosts along the way.
Despite these issues, the competition saw some excellent games and saw some teams go further than they had ever gone before.
Qualification was a multi-layered affair, with teams qualifying from three different competitions as the AFC continued their efforts to develop the lower ranked nations and increase competitiveness.
As with 2007, four teams automatically qualified, with the hosts Qatar joined by the top three teams from the 2007 tournament, giving Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea automatic entry to the finals.
For the rest of the region, the countries marked as emerging and developing were given a qualification route via the 2008 and 2010 AFC Challenge Cups. From this, India returned to the Asian Cup for the first time since 1964 after winning the 2008 Challenge Cup, while North Korea made it back for the first time since 1992 when they won the 2010 Challenge Cup.
When the main qualification tournament began in 2008, it did so with a smaller number of entrants than previous tournaments, with 21 nations entering the competition for 10 places in the finals.
This necessitated a preliminary round for the two lowest ranked teams to reduce the qualification tournament to 20 teams, so Lebanon and the Maldives faced off in a two-legged playoff for the final place.
Lebanon dominated proceedings, winning 4-0 at home and 2-1 away to cruise through 6-1 on aggregate. For the Maldives, it wasn’t the end of the road as they could still attempt to qualify through the Challenge Cup, but Lebanon showed they were on the way back after withdrawing from the 2007 tournament due to the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
20 teams quickly became 19 after India were removed from qualification after winning the 2008 Challenge Cup, so it saw six groups drawn, with five groups of four and one of three teams.
Group A was dominated by Japan and Bahrain, leaving Yemen and Hong Kong in their wake. Japan lost early on to Bahrain, but won every other game to top the group, beating the Bahrainis in Toyota to finish first
Group B was a much closer affair, with Australia topping the group, but only after beating Indonesia in the final group match, while Kuwait and Oman battled it out for the second place. Oman won in Kuwait early on, but paid for drawing one more game than Kuwait and their failure to beat Kuwait in the final group game saw the 1980 Asian Cup winners qualify in second place.
India were originally drawn into Group C alongside Malaysia, the UAE and Uzbekistan, but their removal by the AFC due to having already qualified from the Challenge Cup saw three teams fighting for two places.
As it was, it wasn’t a contest as after Malaysia were beaten 5-0 at home by the UAE, they proceeded to lost every game. The UAE and Uzbekistan took a win away at each other and qualified easily for the finals, with Uzbekistan topping the group on goal difference.
After performing so well in 2007, Vietnam had great hopes for qualification from Group D, but despite a 3-1 win over Lebanon at the start of the group, their hopes went south after a 6-1 thrashing in China PR and they finished well behind Syria and China PR. Syria topped the group undefeated and returned to the Asian Cup finals for the first time since 1996, while China PR continued their impressive record of qualification in second place.
Finally, Group E was a lot closer, with three teams battling it out for one place in the finals. Iran won the group with 13 points, but Jordan, Thailand and Singapore battled it out to the end, taking points and wins off each other, with Jordan only sealing qualification with a 2-1 win over Singapore to finish second, with Thailand’s last minute 1-0 defeat to Iran all the more galling as they finished third.
Al Rayyan and the Qatari capital Doha played host to the 16 teams taking part in the finals, which took place in January 2011 owing to the summer temperatures hitting over 40 degrees in the Arabian Gulf.
It began on 7th January with the hosts taking on Uzbekistan in Group A, with the hosts falling short on their big day as the Uzbeks cruised to a 2-0 win.
Despite this, Qatar were able to rebuild and a 2-0 win against China PR restored their confidence, then they thrashed Kuwait 3-0 in the final group game to make it through to the Quarter-finals.
Uzbekistan showed their quality to win the group after a 2-1 win against Kuwait, with a 0-0 draw against China PR sealing top spot in the group. It also sent the Chinese out of the tournament in third place, which was a disappointing end for them after it had started so well with a 2-0 win against Kuwait, who crashed out with three defeats from three games.
Group B showed the changes occurring in Asian Football as while Japan won the group, Saudi Arabia performed poorly and lost all three games, with Jordan the second team to qualify.
The Saudis started badly, losing 2-1 to Syria, then failed to score again, losing 1-0 to Jordan and crashing out spectacularly when Japan beat them 5-0. Syria went home as well, after losing to Japan and Jordan, while Jordan finished second on goal difference to make another Asian Cup Quarter-final.
Group C followed the same pattern as Group C, with India being found wanting at this level as they lost 4-0 to Australia, 5-2 to Bahrain and South Korea 4-1. That 5-2 win, with Ismaeel Abdullatif scoring four goals, was Bahrain’s only win as they went down 2-1 to South Korea, then went home after a 1-0 Australia win.
This win won the group for the Australians, with South Korea finishing second on goal difference.
Group D was dominated by Iran, who won all three games to cruise through on top. Iraq, back to defend their crown after the emotions of their 2007 win, lost to Iran in the opening game, but found enough reserves to get to the Quarter-finals after a dramatic Abbas own goal in the last minute gave Iraq a 1-0 win over the UAE, then an early Jassim goal secured a 1-0 win against North Korea.
For the UAE and North Korea, a goalless draw with each other on matchday one was as good as it got as all other games ended in defeat, with North Korea only finishing third on goal difference.
The Quarter-finals brought together old rivalries and new teams together and produced some great games with late drama.
Hosts Qatar started things off with a clash against three-time winners Japan. It was a game that demonstrated the emotions of top-level international Football as Qatar took the lead through Soria, only to be pegged back by an equaliser from Shinji Kagawa. The game flowed with chances aplenty and Qatar took the lead again on the hour from Fabio Cesar’s direct free-kick that deceived Kawashima at the near post.
Despite this setback and then being reduced to 10 men after Yoshida was shown a second yellow card, Japan showed their champion class to equalise again, with Kagawa thumping home from a clever Hasibe pass, then Inoha tapped home in the last minute to break Qatari hearts when Kagawa dribbled into the box and, after he was taken out by a desperate challenge from Burhan, leaving an open goal for Inoha to prod the ball home.
The next Quarter-final wasn’t quite as dramatic, but saw Uzbekistan hold on to make their first Semi-final after Bakayev scored two in two minutes to put Uzbekistan 2-0 up, with Jordan getting one back through Bani Yaseen, but they were unable to find an equaliser and bowed out to the jubilant Uzbeks.
The third Quarter-final was a match that brought the defending champions together with a rising power in Asian Football as Iraq took on Australia.
The game couldn’t live up to such high expectations and was a dour battle, but did prove a dramatic finish in extra time when, with two minutes left, Australia reached their first Semi-final and ended Iraq’s defence of the Asian Cup when Harry Kewell got on the end of a long and deep cross from Matt McKay to head home in the 118th minute, finally ending the Iraqi fairy tale from four years earlier.
The final Quarter-final saw Iran and South Korea go at it for the fifth tournament in a row at this stage of the tournament and produced another cagey and nervous game, with neither team wanting to make a mistake. It would take something special to win this match and so it proved when as half-time in extra-time approached, Yoon Bit-Garam moved inside and hit a swerving drive from 30 years out that flew past Rahmati in the Iranian goal. It was a brilliant goal and it sent the Koreans through to another Asian Cup Semi-final.
That Semi-final saw them renew hostilities with their East Asian neighbours Japan and produced a game full of drama and swerves. Ki Sung-yeung scored an early penalty to put South Korea ahead, but Japan levelled up when Nagatomo dribbled into the Korean box and centred for Maeda to rifle home the equaliser.
The game finished 1-1 after 90 minutes and went to extra-time, and it looked like Hosogai had put Japan into the final when he followed up after Honda’s penalty was saved by Sung-ryong, but South Korea found an equaliser in the dying seconds when Hwang Jae-won smashed the ball home in the midst of a goalmouth scramble to save the Koreans and take the game to penalties.
Sadly for South Korea, this was where their luck deserted them as Kawashima saved from Kim Ja-cheol and Lee Yong-rae, then Hong Jeong-ho sent his penalty wide of the post, leaving Konno to score his penalty and put Japan into their fourth final 3-0 on penalties.
The other Semi-final was a much different affair as Uzbekistan found themselves cut to pieces by a razor-sharp Australian attack. Australia started early as Harry Kewell struck a low shot that flew past Juraev in the Uzbek goal after just six minutes, with Ognenovski making it 2-0 at the break.
Uzbekistan couldn’t keep up with the Australian attack and capitulated in the second half, conceding four more goals in 18 minutes as six different Australian players scored in an empathic 6-0 win, sending Australia to their first Asian Cup final just five years after moving to the AFC.
South Korea overcame their Semi-final disappointment to beat Uzbekistan 3-2 in the Third-place playoff, leading 3-0 after 39 minutes and holding off a late Uzbek rally that saw Geynrikh score twice.
The final saw issues arise beforehand, with between 3,000 and 10,000 fans with valid tickets denied entry to the stadium and riot police allegedly confronting kids and families as skirmishes broke out outside the stadium. The AFC stated that the gates were closed early for security concerns and organisers did not anticipate an influx of Japanese and Australian fans and the organising committee offered to refund all tickets not redeemed at the match.
Despite these issues, Australia and Japan stepped out into the Khalifa International Stadium for a final that most pundits had called a dream final. Japan were missing their star man Shinji Kagawa through injury, while Mark Schwartzer became Australia’s most capped player as he started his 88th game for his country.
It had two equally matched teams in a rematch of their 2007 Quarter-final clash and as with that game, this contest was a close one, with chances at a premium and both teams struggling to find a clear chance. Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell had chances in the first half, while Shinji Okazaki missed a header when he was unmarked.
The 90 minutes passed with no goals, so the Asian Cup final would require 30 more minutes to find a winner and when it came, it was a special goal to fit a showpiece occasion as a cross by Nagatomo found substitute Tadanari Lee unmarked in the box and he volleyed home what proved to be the winning goal.
It was cruel on Australia, who had come close to their first Asian Cup after winning three Oceania titles, but Japan were able to celebrate their fourth Asian Cup.