The 2004 AFC Asian Cup in China PR was the biggest tournament yet, with an expanded finals tournament from 12 to 16 nations as the membership of the confederation grew to 45 members.

China PR and Japan, as holders, automatically qualified for the tournament, leaving 14 places available from the qualification tournament which, in an effort to reduce the number of mismatches from the previous two qualifying tournaments saw the 20 lowest ranked nations participate in a preliminary round, with the winners advancing to the main qualification tournament.

From this, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bhutan and North Korea all advanced to the main round. The preliminary round also saw Timor-Leste make their debut in Asian Cup qualifying and Afghanistan return to the tournament after years of exile.

Seven groups of qualifying took place, with the top two teams qualifying for the finals. It saw the leading lights of the Asian game qualify for the finals, as well as some surprises along the way.

Uzbekistan, who were starting to become a powerhouse in regional competition, advanced to their third finals tournament without much trouble, only losing 4-1 to Thailand in the final group game after having already sealed qualification.

That win for Thailand was enough to clinch second place by one point from Tajikistan, who paid the price for two successive defeats to Uzbekistan and Thailand earlier on.

Group B was dominated by two teams as Kuwait qualified on 16 points, only a draw against second-placed Qatar spoiling their perfect record, while Singapore and Palestine finished a long way behind in third and fourth.

Group C was hosted by Saudi Arabia and they dominated proceedings, winning all six games and scoring 30 goals in the process. Indonesia were the best of the rest, finishing second on 10 points, ahead of Yemen and a Bhutan side who lost all six and conceded 26 goals.

Group D was a group that promised much, but was thoroughly dominated by Iran and Jordan, who beat each other at home and won all the other games in the group against a Lebanon team who never got close to their second finals competition and a North Korean team who ended up forfeiting two games after refusing to come back onto the field against Iran when firecrackers were thrown onto the pitch, then never played the game against Jordan after immigration officials did not issue visas to the Jordan team. North Korea were subsequently banned from qualification for the next AFC Asian Cup as a result.

Group E saw Oman surprisingly top the group to qualify for the first time ahead of South Korea who, despite beating Nepal 16-0 and scoring 30 goals, lost to Oman and, surprisingly, Vietnam, who came third in the group after losing to Oman in the final group game.

Group F was dominated by Iraq and Bahrain, who returned to the finals for the first time since 1988, with Iraq winning the group on goal difference. Malaysia and Myanmar took a win each against the other, but were never close to the top two.

Finally, Group G saw a first-time qualifier when Turkmenistan stayed undefeated to win the group ahead of the UAE. The Turkmen were not big scorers, but stayed consistent to make their first finals, while the UAE returned after missing the 2000 finals, with Syria and Sri Lanka missing out.

An expanded finals tournament meant an extra group and more stadia being utilised for the tournament, with the final in the Workers Stadium in Beijing, and other tournament games in Chongqing, Jinan and Chengdu.

Group A saw the hosts in action against Bahrain, Indonesia and Qatar, a group with the potential for surprises and one came early on as Indonesia won their first game in the Asian Cup after going 2-0 up against Qatar, then holding out despite a Mohammed goal to spark huge Indonesian celebrations.

It was the highpoint of their tournament as China PR brought them down to earth with a thump as they won 5-0, then Bahrain secured their own qualification and put Indonesia out with a 3-1 win.

For Bahrain, they had been seconds from defeat in their two other games, before last minutes equalisers rescued a 2-2 draw with China PR and a 1-1 draw with Qatar.

The Qataris were disappointed with how the tournament went for them, with the early defeat by Indonesia and draw against Bahrain leaving them with the difficult task of beating the hosts to make it through.

China PR, boosted by fanatical home support, sent the Qataris home after a 1-0 win that secured top spot in the group for them.

Group B brought surprises and late drama as South Korea topped the group and Jordan qualified for the knockout stages in their first Asian Cup.

That it finished like this didn’t seem likely after South Korea and Jordan drew the opening game 0-0 and Kuwait beat the UAE 3-1. However, Jordan then shocked the Kuwaitis with two goals in stoppage time to win 2-0 and South Korea thrashed them 4-0 to put Kuwait out of the tournament.

Group C produced a huge surprise as Saudi Arabia, who had been in the last five finals and had won three of them, crashed out of the tournament bottom of the group, finishing behind first-time qualifiers Turkmenistan, Iraq and group winners Uzbekistan.

The Uzbeks won all three games to top the group, while Iraq shrugged off their opening defeat to Uzbekistan to edge a five-goal thriller with Turkmenistan, then send the Saudis out of the tournament with a late Younis Mahmoud goal.

Finally, Group D saw defending champions Japan win the group undefeated, ahead of Iran after winning their first two games, then drawing 0-0 with Iran in the final group game. Iran did enough to qualify, but only after striking late to beat Thailand and snatching a last second equaliser against Oman after trailing 2-0.

Oman, in their first finals competition, performed well and got their reward with a final game 2-0 win over Thailand, while the Thais were well beaten in each game, sending them home pointless.

The Quarter finals produced some classic encounters, starting with Uzbekistan and Bahrain fighting it out for either’s first Semi-final place. After going ahead, Uzbekistan were thankful for Vladimir Shishelov’s equaliser four minutes from time after A’Ala Hubail had scored two in five minutes to put Bahrain 2-1 up. After extra time passed without a goal, Hubail scored the winning penalty to send the Bahrainis to their first Semi-final 4-3 on penalties.

Japan took the same route to the Semi-finals against Jordan when the game finished 1-1 after extra time, but only after missing their first two penalties in the shootout. Jordan went 3-0 up, but then proceeded to miss the next four, including the decisive one when Bani Yaseen hit the post and put the holders through at the expense of the heartbroken Jordanians.

South Korea and Iran met in the Quarter-finals for the third tournament in a row and, as with the previous two, the game did not disappoint as the two Asian Football powerhouses shared seven goals in a game that saw Iran take the lead three times against the 2002 World Cup Semi-finalists, but get pegged back each time before Ali Karimi completed his hat-trick to finally end the game 4-3 to Iran, sending them to another Asian Cup Semi-final.

By comparison, China PR vs Iraq didn’t contain as much drama, but was still a memorable occasion for the 60,000 in the Workers Stadium as the hosts scored early through Hao Haidong, then held out the Iraqi attack at bay, before adding to the score through two Zheng Zhi penalties as Iraq’s discipline failed them.

The Semi-finals were no less dramatic as first Japan and Bahrain, in their first Semi-finals, played out another thrilling game, with Bahrain so close to their first final when they came from behind to lead 3-2 through Naser’s 85th minute goal. However, Japan showed why they were the Asian Champions with Nakazawa equalising with a diving header in the 90th minute after Bahrain couldn’t clear their lines, then Tamada scoring a brilliant individual goal three minutes into the extra time period to take Japan through to their third Asian Cup final.

Following that game, the hosts went up against Iran. The game was another battle between two competitive teams which, after Alavi equalised Shao Jiayi’s early goal for China PR, went the distance and saw penalties decide who would face Japan in the final in Beijing

Iran seemed to have the initiative when Zhao Junzhe missed the second Chinese penalty, but Mobali hit the crossbar to level things up then, following Shao Jiayi’s successful spotkick, Liu Yunfei palmed away Golmohammadi’s weak penalty to take the hosts through to their second Asian Cup final.

The final in the Workers Stadium in Beijing was a match with much historical baggage, owing to anti-Japanese sentiment from some quarters after the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and 40s, and was marred by jeering of the Japanese national anthem and a tinderbox atmosphere throughout the game.

The mood was not helped when Takashi Fukunishi scored from close range with a header after 22 minutes for Japan. China PR managed to respond to this goal and equalised 10 minutes later when Li Ming curled the ball home from the edge of the area.

The chances came for both sides and it was clear that the next goal could be decisive. When it came, it was by Koji Nakata for Japan, but was not without controversy as it appeared to hit his hand as he bundled it into the goal at close range. Despite furious Chinese protests, the goal was given and that gave Japan the impetus they needed to go on and win the game, with Tamada running clear and rounding Liu Yunfei to slot home the third goal and retain the Asian Cup for Japan.

Post-match, after Japan were presented with the trophy, rioting broke out near the north gate of the stadium as Chinese fans vented their fury at losing this game in the manner they felt they had, but it could not take away from Japan’s third Asian Cup triumph.