The new millennium saw over 40 countries enter the Asian Cup hoping to dethrone holders Saudi Arabia, with the tournament being held in Lebanon for the first time.
Asian Cup 2000
Runner-up: Saudi Arabia
As with 1996, the finals tournament was a 12-team competition, divided into three groups, so with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia already confirmed as qualifiers, this left 10 groups of qualification games, with the group winners making it to the finals.
The 1996 qualification tournament had seen some mismatches and blow-out scores as newer nations faced established forces and this proved to be the case with the 2000 qualification games as two world record scores were set within a month of each other.
First, Guam entered the Group 9 qualification tournament in Vietnam and, after an 11-0 beating by the hosts, suffered a humiliating 19-0 defeat to China PR.
Then, a month later in Kuwait, the hosts took on Bhutan. In a game made famous in the documentary ‘The Other Final’, Kuwait slaughtered the outmatched Bhutanese 20-0, with Bashar Abdullah racking up eight goals and Jasem Al-Huwaidi six.
In both cases, the winning teams qualified for the finals after winning all group games, Kuwait after scoring 33 goals and China PR 29.
The gap between established nations with the right resources and those either new to the game or without that resource was shown during this qualification tournament to have grown massively, with teams like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Maldives and Nepal all suffering big defeats as they struggled through the competition.
With only one team from each group to qualify, it lead to some close battles and some big names missing out on the finals, with Uzbekistan beating 1996 finalists UAE to the top spot in Group 3, while North Korea finished behind Thailand in Group 8
Elsewhere, Arab and East Asian nation dominated qualifying as Iraq won all three games to top Group 1, while Iran just edged out Syria on goal difference to win Group 2.
Qatar stayed undefeated to top Group 4 ahead of Kazakhstan, South Korea scored 19 goals in three games to dominate Group 6, while Japan won three from three in Group 10 in Macau to easily qualify.
Indonesia were the final qualifiers from Group 7, sealing qualification ahead of Hong Kong after putting nine past the beleaguered Cambodians.
With Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli the venues for the games, the teams arrived in Lebanon and prepared for the challenge ahead.
Lebanon, in their first tournament, faced the unenviable task of tournament veterans in Iran and Iraq, plus an underdog in Thailand. A 4-0 defeat by Iran in the first game brought up fears of the hosts being heavily beaten in each game, but they performed bravely in the other two group games, coming back from 2-0 down to draw with Iraq, then helping to eliminate Thailand from the tournament with a late equaliser.
Thailand had lost 2-0 to Iraq in the tournament’s first game, but a draw with Iran gave them hope of progress through one of the two Third-place spots if they could beat the hosts. As it was, the 1-1 draw saw them finish third with just two points and on the way home.
Iran won the group after remaining undefeated, beating Iraq in the final group game, with the Iraqis thankful for the win over the Thais that saw them qualify in second.
Group B was a tighter affair for the top three, with China PR topping the group ahead of Kuwait on goal difference after beating Indonesia 4-0 in their second game, having drawn 2-2 with the South Koreans and finishing the group stage with a 0-0 draw against Kuwait.
The Kuwaitis, after scoring so many goals in qualification, seemed to lose their scoring touch in Lebanon, with Jasem Al-Huwaidi’s goal in a 1-0 win over South Korea their only goal in the group stage, as they drew 0-0 against Indonesia and China PR.
South Korea managed third place in the group, but only after a Lee Dong-Gook hat-trick put away the Indonesians in a 3-0 win, leaving Indonesia winless, goalless and exiting the tournament.
Group C saw the biggest score of the tournament as Japan beat the hapless Uzbeks 8-1 in Sidon. Uzbekistan had started the tournament with a creditable draw against Qatar, but the subsequent thrashing by Japan was followed by a five-goal thumping by Saudi Arabia.
This 5-0 win helped Saudi Arabia finish second in the group, which they were relieved to do after Japan had beat them 4-1 in the opening game of the group, then a scoreless draw with Qatar put them at risk of an early exit.
Qatar were the only team to hold the Japanese to a draw, a 1-1 draw securing qualification in third place after three draws from three games, while Japan won the group undefeated with an imposing goal difference of +10.
They would face Iraq in the quarter-finals and although Abbas Jassim scored after four minutes for Iraq, Japan showed why they were the team to beat when Nanami and Takahara turned a one-gaol deficit into a lead just seven minutes later, before a further Nanami goal on the half-hour gave Japan a decisive lead, with Myojin ending the game as a contest with the fourth after an hour, putting Japan into the Semi-finals with a 4-1 win
In the other quarter-finals, South Korea exacted revenge on Iran for the 1996 Quarter-final 6-2 thrashing with a golden goal triumph. It had looked like another Iran win when Karin Bagheri put them ahead with 20 minutes to go, but Kim Sang-Sik grabbed an equaliser in the last minute when Iran couldn’t clear away from a corner then, in extra time, Lee Dong-Gook broke Iranian hearts with a tap in from close range.
China PR made it to yet another Semi-final with a dominating 3-1 win over Qatar, Yang Chen’s goal on 54 minutes ending it as a contest at 3-0, while Saudi Arabia edged out the Kuwaitis in a back-and-forth contest, with the winner only coming in golden goal extra from Al-Temyat to secure a 3-2 win.
This took the Saudis to a semi-final against South Korea and China PR faced off with Japan in a repeat of the 1992 Semi-final.
Whereas the 1996 Semi-finals were cagey and low-scoring affairs, the two 2000 Semi-finals saw two thrilling games, with the winners having to battle hard to make the Final.
First, two goals in four minutes from Talal Al-Meshal proved enough to put Saudi Arabia into their fifth successive Asian Cup final, but only after surviving a late barrage from South Korea that saw Lee Dong-Gook score his fifth goal of the tournament in the 90th minute and come close again.
Then Japan and China PR played out a five-goal thriller that swayed back and forth, with both teams taking the lead, then pegging the other back. It took a Myojin goal after 61 minutes to win the game for Japan, but they had to hold on until the end as the Chinese threatened time after time until the final whistle blew on their Asian Cup dreams, with a third Semi-final defeat in four tournaments.
Lee Dong-Gook got goal number six for the tournament as South Korea won the Third-place playoff against China PR, before the top two nations in Asian Football set out in a repeat of the 1992 final to see who would become the Asian Champions in 2000.
In the end, Japan would repeat the win of eight years earlier when Shigeyoshi Mochizuki stole in behind the Saudi defence to fire home a close-range volley from Shunsuke Nakamura’s free-kick, taking the trophy back to East Asia after Japan held on for a 1-0 win.