Paul Marcuccitti


 
Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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There's always the AFC Women's Asian Cup



    So what do you do a week after the World Cup ends? Start counting the days until the next one? Just wallow in your depression?

Don't despair - there's always the AFC Women's Asian Cup.

    Yes, that's right. The finals of the Women's Asian Cup have just commenced and, bless Asia's decision makers, they're being held in Adelaide. For Australia, hosting and playing in this competition is another reward from the Asia dividend.

    When Australia was a member of Oceania, it qualified for every Women's World Cup finals except for the inaugural tournament of 1991.

    OFC has had a full place for each finals and that has meant that New Zealand had been the Aussies' only real competition in qualifying. In women's football, the Australia and New Zealand dominance of Oceania was even greater than in men's football.

    Unfortunately Australia's women's team (the Matildas) has a poor World Cup record with no wins, 2 draws and 7 losses at the finals. If the team qualifies for 2007, however, its preparation should be better. That's because Asia has some genuine power teams in the women's game and Australia will be playing them in meaningful matches at all age levels.

    If the Asian Cup (for men) was staged in Australia now, the Socceroos would start the tournament as favourites. But the Matildas are not favourites to lift the Women's Asian Cup. They have China and North Korea to contend with.

    China won 7 consecutive Asian Women's Championships from 1986 to 1999. In '99, China's women's team (the Steel Roses) also reached the Women's World Cup Final but the USA denied them in a penalty shootout. (I'm sure everyone remembers seeing Brandi Chastain rip her shirt off after her spot kick clinched the trophy for the Americans.)

    North Korea hasn't yet reached the Women's World Cup quarter-finals but has been good enough to end China's dominance of Asia by winning the last two Asian Women's Championships. Australia and North Korea are in the same group and I'm looking forward to their meeting on Saturday night.

    There are nine teams in the finals: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Vietnam are in Group A; North Korea, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and Myanmar are in Group B. The top two in each group go through to the semi-finals.

    Normally a tournament like this would have two groups of four but Australia's recent move to the AFC means that qualifying began while Australia was still in Oceania. To give the Matildas the chance to qualify for the Women's World Cup, they were added to the competition and it was also moved to Adelaide (Japan was the original host.)

    The 2007 Women's World Cup will be held in China so the Steel Roses (love that nickname) qualify automatically. Asia has 2.5 other spots at next year's finals so the two highest placed teams at this tournament (excluding China) will also qualify. The next best team gets another chance through a playoff against the team that finishes third in CONCACAF's Women's Gold Cup which will be played later this year.

    Although Group A has fewer teams, it may be the tougher group. Recent history would suggest that China and Japan would go through to the semis but Vietnam and the youthful Chinese Taipei team could be competitive. In Group B, Thailand and Myanmar look likely to struggle against the two Korean teams and Australia.

    Yesterday I watched the tournament begin with Thailand recording a 2-1 win over Myanmar, and Australia defeating South Korea 4-0.

    You might be thinking that watching these matches with about 1500 other spectators couldn't be further from the excitement of the last international I had a ticket for - the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy (and it seems extraordinary that I was watching that game less than two weeks ago).

    But this tournament has its upsides. I'm yet to see anyone feign injury, blatantly dive in the penalty area, sprint half the length of the field to demand that the referee sends someone off, or commit sickening fouls. That lack of cynicism has to be worth something, surely?

    Thanks to a helpful official from Australia's football federation, I also have a media pass which allowed me into the press conference after the Matildas' win. I was also fortunate to have media passes for many of Australia's World Cup qualifiers and I have to admit that I was stargazing when I was able to sit just a few metres away from Guus Hiddink (and Mark Viduka) after Australia defeated the Solomon Islands in Sydney last year.

    I wasn't quite stargazing yesterday but it was still a privilege to see the great Cheryl Salisbury answering the media's questions. The tall defender has made more than 100 appearances for the Matildas.

    She also combined well with defensive partner Karla Reuter to limit the Koreans to just a couple of scoring chances in a match that saw the Matildas controlling most of the play.

    Australia struggled to score in the first half. The players were a bit too impatient at times and only two fabulous strikes by midfielder Joanne Peters (one hit the crossbar) threatened to break the deadlock.

    Australia needed a bizarre own goal to take a 1-0 lead to half time. A Korean defender simply headed a speculative cross into her own net when she was under no pressure - there were no other outfield players in the box.

    In the 64th minute, Cha Yun-Hee could have scored from the Koreans' best move of the match but, a minute later, Sarah Walsh put Australia 2-0 up with a well taken goal. The Korean defenders were at fault and seemed to struggle with the slippery conditions throughout the match.

    The pace of the game really lifted in the last 30 minutes and the Aussies finished off really well. They scored a third when left midfielder Caitlin Munoz got on the end of a fine cross by substitute Lisa De Vanna. Munoz had threatened the Korean defence repeatedly. Again, the goal came just after the Koreans went close at the other end. This time Lee Ji-Eun forced a good save from Aussie 'keeper Melissa Barbieri.

    But it was Australia that found the cutting edge that had been missing in the first half and De Vanna scored the fourth herself a few minutes from full time.

    It's a big result for the Matildas as North Korea, South Korea and Australia will almost certainly be the teams fighting for Group B's two semi-final places.

    The earlier match between Thailand and Myanmar was entertaining if a little less intense. Myanmar enjoyed some good possession but its attacks kept breaking down as the Thai defence was just too strong.

    The Thais went ahead in the 35th minute through Pitsamai Sornsai and they dominated the last ten minutes of the first half.

    With Suphaphon Kaeobaen constantly threatening the Myanmar defence, Sornsai made it 2-0 in the 56th minute and, at that point, the match seemed over. But within five minutes, Daw My Htwe pulled a goal back for Myanmar after a scramble in the Thai penalty area and suddenly the tournament's underdogs looked more potent. Thailand settled, however, and finished the match confidently. The final score was 2-1.

    Sadly, I won't be able to see every match in this tournament - a lot of them will be played during working hours - but I'll be back with an update in a week's time. (And you can always check out the dedicated site at www.the-afc.com for results and match reports.)

    Besides, another two weekends of international football action is enough to satisfy my cravings - for now.



 

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