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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Controversy in the AFC Women's Asian Cup semis - and a 2010 World Cup snippet

    Dear, dear readers. I have so much to tell you and so little time. Where to start?

    Well the heading promises you a 2010 World Cup snippet so I won't tease you by leaving it until the end of the column.

    Yesterday, I was able to attend a media conference featuring John O'Neill, Chief Executive of Football Federation Australia, and Mohamed bin Hammam, President of the Asian Football Confederation.

    I asked the AFC boss the following question, "Before the World Cup, Asia was talking about pushing for extra places at the tournament (the confederation currently has 4.5). After 3 Asian teams finished bottom of their groups, do you think that's now an unrealistic goal?"

    He replied by saying, "Even before the World Cup it was very clear that we are aiming for 4.5 seats for 2010 and also during the World Cup, through our performances in 2006, I think 4.5 seats will be, very much, the realistic number of seats for Asia."

    I didn't hear of any Asian football heavyweights settling on a target of 4.5 spots for the 2010 World Cup before the 2006 finals kicked off. (If you did, please email me with the details.) Last October, Peter Velappan (AFC General Secretary) said, "FIFA knows when we sit down next year to talk about 2010, we will be asking for an extra seat."

    My country is now a member of AFC so I obviously hope it does well in the allocation of places at the World Cup finals. But Asia's performance in Germany shows that extra slots for the confederation aren't merited. And with the AFC President virtually conceding that anything more than 4.5 spots will be unrealistic, you can assume, quite safely, that Asia's allocation for 2010 won't be increased.

    Mind you, I don't think it should be decreased either. For 2006, Asia had 4.5 places without Australia being a member of the confederation. Now, with the Socceroos participating in AFC's qualifiers for 2010, there will be more competition for the same number of slots.

    Allocation of slots is a subject worthy of its own column (perhaps several) but this little crumb of information gives us an early piece in the jigsaw. The AFC's approach looks likely to be: what we have, we hold.

    Thursday's AFC Women's Asian Cup action saw upsets in two action-packed semi-finals with the North Korea v China match also ending in controversy.

    In my last piece I talked briefly about the history of North Korea v China in the women's game but I made an error by saying that this semi-final would be their sixth meeting in either an Asian semi-final or Final. There had, in fact, been six already. Below is the full list of results (in this competition) between the two teams:

      1989 Group match   China       4-1
      1991 Semi-final    China       1-0
      1993 Group match   Draw        1-1
      1993 Final         China       3-0
      1997 Group match   China       3-1
      1997 Final         China       2-0
      1999 Semi-final    China       3-0
      2001 Semi-final    North Korea 3-1
      2003 Final         North Korea 2-1 (asdet)

    You can see that, in recent years, the North Koreans ended a long run of failures against China and, after winning Group B, they were favoured to win Thursday night's clash.

    Backed by a large and vocal group of supporters, the Chinese were more aggressive in a high-paced opening. As teams so often do, China found an extra gear at the business end of the tournament.

    But the best early chance fell to North Korea. A great move in the 10th minute involving Pak Kyong Sun, captain Ri Kum Suk, and Jo Yun Mi gave midfielder Kim Than Sil a good opportunity but she hesitated and her shot was blocked.

    Ri Kum Suk is an outstanding forward with fantastic touch and Jo Yun Mi was also excellent on the left of midfield. The Korean players were sharp and not afraid of taking opponents on.

    Nevertheless, China had three decent chances in the first half. A 17th minute shot on the turn by Ma Xiaoxu sailed over the bar; Ren Liping rattled the crossbar in the 25th minute from a direct free kick just outside the penalty area; and in the 31st minute, a defensive ricochet fell kindly for Zhang Tong but she shot straight at Korean 'keeper Han Hye Yong. Xiaoxu is clearly the player that China relies on in attack.

    The North Koreans dominated the last 15 minutes of the first half. In the 33rd minute, a swerving free kick by Ri Kum Suk forced a fine save from Han Wenxia in China's goal. Eight minutes later, a wonderful through ball by Ri Kum Suk gave Ri Un Gyong a golden opportunity but the midfielder sprayed her shot wide.

    Just before half time, right-back Song Jung Sun crossed brilliantly but Pak Kyong Sun, an ineffective strike partner to Ri Kum Suk, sent her header straight to Han Wenxia.

    North Korea is a great team to watch. It isn't just a hard-running team as its players are capable of intricate moves. But despite sustained periods of Korean pressure, the half time score was 0-0.

    After half time, the Koreans made two substitutions and one of the changes, predictably, was to bring Kim Yong Ae on in place of Pak Kyong Sun. Kim Yong Ae also came on as a substitute against South Korea and she scored the only goal of that game.

    I would not have believed it possible, but the pace actually lifted in the second half. These teams' rivalry means so much to the players and an excited crowd added to the intensity of the occasion.

    Again China started brightly and in the 47th minute Zhang Tong shot wide after more great work from Ma Xiaoxu.

    North Korea roared back. The Koreans could be sharper in attack but it takes a lot of energy to keep them out as they just refuse to pass the ball around at the back. They just want to keep pushing forward and they were nearly rewarded in the 56th minute when a great cross by defender Ho Sun Hui was flicked narrowly wide by Kim Yong Ae.

    But only three minutes later, the deadlock was broken by the Steel Roses. Midfielder Bi Yan got to the goal line and crossed superbly from the left and Ma Xiaoxu (who else?) headed home beautifully. 1-0 to China.

    China wouldn't create any more chances because in the last half hour, North Korea unleashed a fury.

    In the 65th minute, Ri Kum Suk headed wide after China struggled to clear a corner and four minutes later Kim Yong Ae cleverly made a chance after confusion in the Chinese defence. She flicked her shot just over the bar.

    Ri Un Gyong flashed a shot wide in the 81st minute and Ho Sun Hui was again involved up forward with a shot from long range only minutes later. Still no reward. Somehow China's defence was withstanding the siege and captain Pu Wei was marshalling it magnificently.

    Sadly China also indulged in some ultra-cynical play in the closing stages of the game. The tournament had mercifully seen little of that sort of nonsense until now but two Chinese players, on seeing that they were about to be substituted, collapsed to the ground, rolled around, and got themselves carried off on stretchers. Largely because of this, the referee allowed nearly eight minutes of stoppage time - and rightly so (the board on the touch line suggested that only five minutes needed to be played).

    You rarely see a player that has come on as a substitute getting substituted but, bizarrely, Kim Yong Ae was pulled off in the 88th minute and replaced with another forward, Jong Pok Sim. Why would you pull off a relatively fresh forward - and your team's last goal scorer - when you need a goal in the dying minutes? The pace that Kim Yong Ae sprinted to the touch line with suggested that she certainly wasn't injured.

    There was still enough time for an amazing miss by Ri Un Gyong when she shot straight at the 'keeper with the goal at her mercy and then, six minutes into injury time, North Korea finally found the back of the net from a penalty box scramble.

    The Koreans celebrated and I strained to see who the scorer was (I still don't know). But the assistant referee had flagged for offside and was standing just a few metres from the corner flag. The goal was disallowed.

    I didn't have a good view of the offside as I was sitting in line with the halfway line. My first reaction was that it was probably an incorrect call but it was hard to tell because there were so many bodies in the box.

    North Korea's players were in no doubt - the officials were wrong, wrong, wrong. And when the final whistle blew, pandemonium ensued.

    Korean goalkeeper Han Hye Yong pushed the referee and was shown a red card. Other angry players also tried to confront the referee and her assistants. Police raced on to the pitch to escort the officials to the tunnel but the Korean team was still chasing them and also threw bottles of water at them.

    Some Chinese fans, just above the players' tunnel, got in on the act and threw bottles at the North Koreans (whose bench and coaching staff were also involved in the fracas) and the players then started throwing those bottles back at the crowd. There were at least a couple of minutes of complete anarchy.

    The Koreans stayed on the pitch for about ten minutes (they were probably prevented from leaving) and at the beginning of the post-match media conference, the AFC's media and communications director explained that the Koreans were not allowed to attend because of the incidents after the game and that those incidents would be referred to the AFC's disciplinary committee.

    After the review of the video and the report of the match commissioner, three of North Korea's players were suspended for the match for third place - Han Hye Yong (who had already been red carded) and defenders Song Jong Sun and Sonu Kyong Sun. The third place match will now decide Asia's last direct qualification place for the Women's World Cup and losing Sonu, a solid defender, will really handicap the team.

    Still, the North Koreans are lucky to be playing in the third place match. As I watched the extraordinary post-match scenes, I even wondered if they might be thrown out of the tournament. There may be further penalties to individuals but at yesterday's media conference Mohamed bin Hammam all but ruled out any punishment for the team.

    Until the fracas, I had felt some sympathy for the Koreans. They gave the game so much energy and dominated most of the play. They ran into a Chinese team that was inspired, well organised and good enough to keep them scoreless.

    You cannot excuse what happened after the final whistle. You mustn't, under any circumstances, threaten the safety of match officials (not even Graham Poll). If there are no further punishments to the offending players, they should count themselves lucky.

    Indeed, the referee (Anna De Toni of Italy) did the right thing by the Koreans by playing so much stoppage time. And she relied on her assistant for the offside call (which may have been correct). What's wrong with that?

    The earlier semi-final had no controversy but plenty of action. There was no cautious beginning and no strategic chess game. Australia and Japan played with attacking intent from kick off.

    Both sides threatened in the first 90 seconds and midfielder Aya Miyama had a long-range shot for Japan.

    In a frenetic opening, attacking midfielder Shinobu Ohno looked tricky and capable of strong runs for Japan, and Sarah Walsh was powerful up forward for Australia.

    In the 9th minute, the Matildas went ahead when midfielder Sally Shipard set up outstanding forward Caitlin Munoz to stab the ball into the back of the net. Australia had switched from a 4-3-3 formation to 4-4-2 for this match but the 2 (Walsh and Munoz) have plenty of experience together and they adjusted well.

    Japan has a real weakness in goals and a cross spilled by 'keeper Miho Fukumoto gave Shipard the chance to double Australia's lead in the 11th minute. Her shot was wide.

    The speed of the game did not slow and Japan hit back with a shot from Ohno in the 12th minute. Then, after a free kick and two corners, right-back Kozue Ando also shot wide.

    The Japanese players were technically a little better than Australia's - a fact that Australian coach Tom Sermanni conceded after the match - so the Matildas were quite direct and they tried to exploit their height advantage.

    Nevertheless, Australia's next attacking move was all along the ground. A glorious through ball by Munoz allowed Sarah Walsh to shoot but her effort was tame.

    After half an hour, the pace finally slowed a bit and both teams battled for control in midfield. Miyama had another speculative shot in the 33rd minute and, with Australia's Di Alagich marking dangerous midfielder Homare Sawa tightly, Miyama seemed to be the only Japanese player with any ideas.

    The Blues had their best chance in the 37th minute when lone striker Yuki Nagasato (yeah, 4-5-1 here too...) latched on to a great through ball from the busy Ohno, but Nagasato's shot flew over the bar. She should have done better.

    The teams then traded chances again. In the 40th minute, a shot by the influential Shipard was blocked and the rebound fell to Walsh who blazed over the bar. At the other end, three minutes later, a free kick by midfielder Miyuki Yanagita created some panic in the Australian penalty box.

    Just when it seemed that 1-0 would be the half time score, another howler by Japanese 'keeper Fukumoto handed Australia a second goal. A corner was dropped by Fukumoto, a scramble resulted, and midfielder Jo Peters stabbed the ball home.

    Facing a two-goal deficit, Japan applied all the pressure in the first five minutes of the second half but Australia's central defensive partnership of Thea Slatyer and captain Cheryl Salisbury looked comfortable. The Matildas' defence simply wouldn't yield.

    A knee injury to Slatyer forced her off the field in the 61st minute and, at the post-match media conference, Tom Sermanni said that he doubted that she'd be able to play in the Final - a big blow for the Aussies.

    The pushing into attack of the Japanese players meant that Australia might catch them on the break and, in the 59th minute, Munoz nearly made it 3-0 after Sarah Walsh carried the ball from one penalty box to the other.

    Four minutes later, Ohno made yet another strong run but she shot straight into the arms of Aussie 'keeper Melissa Barbieri.

    After her terrific dash from defence to attack, Walsh was substituted. It was a good move by Sermanni because she'd run herself into the ground and her replacement, Lisa De Vanna, is tricky and quick. With her first action, De Vanna broke down the left and crossed for Collette McCallum but the midfielder couldn't add to Australia's lead.

    Japan's last chance came in the 86th minute. A great lay off by Sawa, free of Di Alagich for once, allowed Ohno to shoot but her effort was wide. The second half had been extremely entertaining - even though there had been few chances. If you gave me the choice of watching a replay of either of these semi-finals or a live men's international between Paraguay and Portugal, I'd opt for one of the women's semis.

    After the final whistle, the Australian players celebrated like a team that had qualified for the World Cup because ... well ... they had. The players' dressing rooms at Adelaide's Hindmarsh Stadium are next to the room that media conferences are being held in and, while Hiroshi Ohashi (the Japanese coach) spoke to the media, celebratory screams could be heard from the Matildas' rooms.

    Tomorrow, China and Australia, both underdogs before the semi-finals, will meet in the Final of the AFC Women's Asian Cup. Before that, North Korea and Japan will play for third place and, more importantly, the last direct qualification spot for the Women's World Cup. (The loser of the North Korea v Japan match will, however, get a second chance at qualifying by playing off against the team that finishes third in CONCACAF.)

    Who can predict these games? North Korea would normally be the favourite against Japan but the Koreans will be missing their first-choice goalkeeper and two first-choice defenders. (And can they bounce back after all that drama?)

    Can Australia win its first Asian title, just seven months after officially joining the confederation? Or will China reclaim the tournament that it ruled from 1986 to 1999?

    I can't wait to find out. I'm enjoying this tournament even more than I thought I would.



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