Iran shatters the host's dreams

A. VINOD

SOUTH KOREA will not forgive Iran for this one defeat in the semifinals, though, in truth, it was sheer bad luck which cost the host the one gold medal which it so dearly wanted to win in the 14th Asian Games. Given the superb show of its senior squad in the May-June World Cup, it was only natural that the home team fans had such great expectations on their football team and its eventual victory was almost considered a foregone conclusion.

Members of the Iran football team celebrate their gold medal victory over Japan in the Asian Games at Busan.-AP

In fact, for a Games which evoked very little public support, the 53,000 seats marked for the football final had all been sold out on the opening day itself when the tickets went on public sale on July 1. In the event, as Iran clashed with Japan and won a fourth Asian Games title, the Busan Asian Games main stadium, sadly, was only half full. There were no touts around and no takers for those who tried in vain to sell off their "precious" tickets at face value.

South Korea, for all its achievements in the other venues, was in mourning. The bronze medal won easily with a 3-1 victory over Thailand some time earlier was no compensation. The home team had lost in a nerve-wrecking shootout against Iran two days earlier. After holding a clear advantage, it failed to find the target through the regulation period and the two halves of extra-time.

South Korea had it easy in the earlier stages as it won 4-0 against Maldives, 5-2 against Oman and 4-0 against Malaysia to take the top spot in Group A. Thailand, the 1998 runner-up, too was unbeaten. It had defeated Yemen (3-0), Vietnam (3-0) and United Arab Emirates (3-1) in Group B, while China emerged from Group C, also with a clean slate. China won against Turkmenistan (4-0), Bangladesh (3-0) and India (2-0).

Japan and Kuwait too emerged unscathed from Groups D and F while Iran, held by Qatar (1-1) in its last Group E league match, was the only topper which failed to score the full nine points. The other two teams which completed the quarterfinal line-up were Bahrain and North Korea, runners-up in Groups D and F with six points but with a better goal-average than India, which had hoped to qualify after defeating Bangladesh (3-0) and Turkmenistan (3-1) in the league phase.

While Bahrain, which lost to Japan (2-5) but scored wins over Palestine (5-0) and 1994 winner Uzbekistan (3-0), had a goal difference of plus 5, North Korea, despite its 2-0 loss against Kuwait, had a goal average of plus 4, this coming from its 5-0 and 2-1 wins over Pakistan and Hong Kong respectively. India had only a goal average of plus 3 and though it did protest against the failure of the organisers to conduct all the final league matches of the tournament simultaneously, its objection was turned down eventually by the Technical Committee of the Asian Football Confederation.

An identical 1-0 margin emerged from all the quarterfinals as Japan came past China, Iran subdued Kuwait, South Korea prevailed over Bahrain and Thailand left behind North Korea. And as the action peaked up, it was South Korea's turn to face disaster but not before the side had come up with a domineering performance against Iran all the way.

The home side was in full control of the proceedings at the Gudeok stadium, right from the start. With cries of "Korea, Korea" from the packed audience, the home team frontline went forward in chase of the expected lead. World Cup striker Lee Chun-Soo proved to be a constant menace to the rival defence and so did Kim Dong-Jin, the pair getting admirable support from the midfield and the flanks.

Yet, for all the good work in the middle and upfront, Korea was unable to strike in the first-half. Iran, without key striker Ali Daei, who had to rush back following the death of his father, remained content all the while to defend and keep the marauding South Korean forwards at bay. Two minutes into the second-half, Iran almost went ahead but the headed goal by Javad Kazemeyan off a left-wing cross by Alireza Vahedi Nikbakht was disallowed by the Bahraini referee Rahman Al-Delawar for offside.

The Iranians protested vehemently against the referee even as replays suggested that Kazemeyan was very much onside when he headed the ball past the goalkeeper Lee Won-Jae.

The victorious North Korean team which took the women's title.-AFP

The host side hit the woodwork twice and Kim Eun-Jung wasted a near post header wide before a dipping long-ranger from Kim Dong-Jin shaved the crossbar and went out of play. In the very next minute, Cho Sung-Hwan headed the ball over again trying to connect a teasing cross from Lee Chun-Soo. Lee, who had scored five goals in as many games, let two other chances go abegging even as the match rolled over to extra-time and as the penalties loomed.

And then finally, it was substitute Lee Dong-Gook who let the home side down hitting the ball wide off the target, when clean through on goal, with a rash right-footed shot. Iran, which had hardly mounted a single meaningful attack, however, kept its cool when it mattered the most. The much-awaited opening came its way through rival skipper Lee Young-Pyo who struck the crosspiece while attempting the second kick of the tie-breaker. It was defender Yahya Golmohammadi who put the issue beyond doubt by firing the decisive kick into the roof of the Korean net. The silence which followed was deafening.

The first semifinal, earlier, was won by Japan with a convincing 3-0 margin over Thailand. The superiority of the Japanese was never in doubt though the Thais were bolstered by the return of striker Kiatisak Senamuang and midfielder Narongchai Vachiraban after a one-match suspension.

The English coach of Thailand, Peter Withe, had fancied the chances of his team to make it to the final for a second time running on the eve of the match. It did look as if his words would come true when Kiatisak and his striking partner Thiabma Phaitoon came close to scoring early on. But once Japan was able to overcome its tentative start, the writing was on the wall.

Japan, which had brought its under-21 team for the tournament, didn't have to wait long for the lead-goal. It came in the 23rd-minute when a cross from overlapping defender Mita Hikaru was spilled by rival custodian Kittisak Rawangpa. Shohei Ikeda, lurking nearby, had enough time and space to collect the rebound and smash the ball in from close-range.

The second goal for Japan came two minutes after resumption when Keita Suzuki met a pass from Kazuyuki Morisaki and came up with a powerful right-footer from away. It was only a matter of time before Japan wrapped up the match through Satoshi Nakayama who found a low cross from Hayuma Tanaka and slid the ball through to the rival net without any difficulty.

The first-half of the final saw no goals and the only incident of note herein was the booking of Iranian forward Javad Kazemeyan in the sixth-minute for diving in the rival penalty box in the hope of getting a penalty. The two sides failed to bring up anything of note other than a couple of stray chances which anyhow failed to materialise. Iran's Javad Nekounam saw his long-ranger from about 30m being palmed away by rival goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaga and Japan's Daisuke Matsui had one shot at the rival goal, the ball sailing over the crosspiece.

However, three minutes into the final session, the Japanese defence, which had not conceded any goal in its last three matches, at last caved in as the dangerous Kazemeyan scored with a powerful left-foot grounder past the outstretched hands of Fujigaga after latching on to a Mehdi Amirvabadi's pass from the left. Iran had another chance to score a couple of minutes later when Moharram Navidkia got a back pass from Kazemeyan and beat the Japanese goalkeeper with a diagonal shot. However, the ball struck the bar and rebounded back into play.

As the match wore on, Mita Hiraku was fouled by Yahya Golmohammadi as the Japanese tried to break himself into the rival box, but the foul went unnoticed. And then, Fujigama fumbled with another Kazemeyan shot, but to the relief of the Japanese bench, the ball deflected wide off the goalkeeper's chest. Seven minutes later came Iran's second goal as Mohsen Bayatiniya capitalised on a lapse in the rival defence and shot the ball on target.

The Japanese response this time was swift but Satoshi Nakayama's goal in the 89th-minute didn't create any impact in the final outcome and stop Iran from claiming its fourth Asian Games football gold after its earlier successes in 1974 (Teheran), 1990 (Beijing) and 1998 (Bangkok).

South Korea, recovering from its shattering loss to Iran, dismantled Thailand for the bronze with goals from Park Dong-Hyuk, Lee Chun-Soo and Choi Tae-Uk.

In the women's section, North Korea signalled the start of a new era as it won the gold after topping the six-team round-robin league with a four-win, one-draw record. The effortless ease with which North Korea came through was a big blow to China, which had arrived in Busan looking for a fourth consecutive title. China, which drew with North Korea (0-0), had its gold medal chances spoilt when it was held to 2-2 draw by Japan, the eventual bronze-medallist. China with three wins (against Chinese Taipei, Vietnam and South Korea) and two draws thus had to be satisfied with the silver. North Korea, apart from the draw against China, had wins over Japan (1-0), Chinese Taipei (1-0), South Korea (2-0) and Vietnam (4-0).

Japan's three wins had come against Vietnam (3-0), South Korea (1-0) and Chinese Taipei (2-0). China could find some consolation that it had fielded a young side lacking in experience as it settled for the silver.

Clarification: In the issue dated Nov. 02, 2002 (page 57) it was inadvertently mentioned that the IAAF had punished Sunita Rani. In fact, the IAAF is yet to take any action against the Indian athlete who tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone at the Busan Asian Games. The error is regretted.