It is somewhat cliché, and yet football once produced a major tournament final that could not have been scripted. On a rollercoaster ride of emotions there was drama, tension, refocus, resilience, relief, joy and finally euphoria for the Socceroos and their millions of adoring fans at the stadium and watching live on television across the nation.
After 32 matches over the past three weeks, Australia has become the deserved champion of the Asian Football Confederation. This has happened after only their third appearance in the tournament since joining the AFC on 1 January 2006.
Not since November 2005 when Australia triumphed over Uruguay to qualify for the 2006 World Cup had this venue been the stage for such an electrifying atmosphere. At least 15,000 fans of Korea Republic played a magnificent part in the sell out crowd of over 76,000 at Stadium Australia. However, even their well co-ordinated chanting was in the end not enough as their noble and wonderful team fell just short when it really counted.
Build up to the game had the host nation primed for the final with Australian football fans expressing a range of expectations; from absolute self belief to quite confidence to simple optimism to cautious hope to nervous anticipation.
In a slight detour from original plans, match day preparation included a leisurely lunch (traditional pasta and gelato) at Bar Italia on Norton Street in Leichhardt; the “Little Italy” of multicultural Sydney. It was hoped that just a little of the Italian “luck” in football finals might rub off for later in the day! As promised, and in solidarity with fellow Australians, a Socceroos t-shirt was worn beneath ‘neutral’ media attire.
Australia stuck with the same line up as in their semi-final only four days before. Korea made only one change from their starting eleven fielded against Iraq five days before.
Symbolically, the Socceroos reverted back to their traditional white socks, which reflects a national team heritage going back to the 1960s.
Korea took the initiative from the onset and created several clear cut chances, which were not taken for which they would ultimately pay the price. Star attacking midfielder Son Heung-min was in particular wasteful on goal in the first half, including one glorious opportunity from a free kick.
In the 45th minute, and almost against the run of play, the game turned. The ball was played through to Massimo Luongo who with an exquisite first touch and turn he then balanced and intuitively launched a powerful righted footed strike from 20 metres that beat Korean goal keeper Kim Jin-hyeon at the near post. The home crowd erupted and went into full song of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Aussies, Aussies….etc”.
At half time, it seemed that Australia was well on the way to winning, and there was little portent of things to come. In the second half, Korea gradually got back into some rhythm without seriously threatening their opponents on goal. Too many crosses were either too predictable and predominantly from the right wing or well defended.
As the game began to drift away from the visitors, most of the crowd increasingly sensed an Australian victory, and then came a huge letdown. A high foot up challenge not pulled up by the referee allowed the ball to fall into the path of Heung-min on the left side. With great acceleration and then poise he closed in on goal to neatly slip the ball past advancing Mat Ryan for a dramatic equaliser in the 90th minute. The hearts of millions of Aussie fans must have sunk; would this be another so near and yet so far outcome?
In the short break before extra time, both teams huddled around their respective coaches for last minute instructions and guidance. It was later revealed by Tommy Oar that Ange Postecoglou “told everyone (the players) that we are the fittest team in the tournament ……..gave everyone the belief and tried to get our heads up after the disappointment of conceding that late goal”.
Physical fitness, stamina and conditioning were to be a significant factor in the subsequent 30 minutes or so. Cramping emerged, which the Koreans seemed to milk a lot more in terms of getting attention from the referee to hold up play; a cynical ploy perhaps or were they just feeling it even more than the opposition?
With the first period drawing to a close, the ball went out to substitute Tomi Juric who near the goal line on the right held the ball up and yet somehow stayed on his feet from close attention by two defenders, wove a path towards goal and drilled a low cross into the six metre box. The ball was blocked and yet fell nicely for James Troisi who drove the ball high into the roof of the net to break the deadlock. More jubilation around the stadium including amongst many Australians in the packed media tribune!
After the change of halves, Juric had a penalty claim denied when clearly he was pushed just inside the box. In the last five minutes Korea threw all they could muster and yet there was no fairy tale comeback for a second time. The final whistle blew and a huge outpouring of joy, relief and elation flowed throughout the stadium and on the field. Australia had won this epic encounter and claimed its first major title since an introduction to international football back in 1922.
The post game presentations and parade of the trophy around the stadium involved further scenes of euphoria, including a proud head coach letting all the emotions out. Special focus by the Socceroos squad was firstly for their families and close friends, including the personalised shirted “Jedinak” club seated together to honour their club captain. Next it was over to the active supporters section and incredible mutual joy and recognition.
The 22 year-old Massimo Luongo was very appropriately give the player of the tournament award, Mat Ryan best goal keeper of this 2015 edition and Trent Sainsbury player of the final.
For the Taeguk Warriors they once again failed to recapture past glory, and it has now been 55 years since their last Asian Cup title win. Since 1960, this is the fourth consecutive finals appearance without winning the title. Many thousands of Korean fans left the game very disappointed and yet mostly philosophical as they acknowledged the merit of Australia’s victory.
A comprehensive summary with quotes of the two coaches, Uli Stielike and Ange Postecoglou, and the player of the tournament from the post match press conferences and mixed zones will follow soon in a separate report for Football Qatar.
An hour or so after the game, Tim Cahill emphasised that “we were programmed to just go out there and play the game, and not the occasion”.
“Tonight is one of the biggest moments in sport for Australia, because this is an Asian tournament which is so difficult to win and to take it back another notch a tournament we never supposed to win with this group of players”.
“I’m really proud of the boss (coach), proud of someone being Australian, and really having the passion to believe in the youngsters, to believe in the talent and to really take us to different levels. We’ve opened doors inside this team that people would never have known about, this man had shown people. I’m just happy to be on this journey.” Cahill said.
Substitute striker Tomi Juric who set up what was subsequently the winning goal revealed “we knew that we were fitter than them, we knew that we were stronger than them, and as you saw they started to cramp in extra time. We kept on going and going, and it was just that massive part of believing in getting to the goal that we set out at the beginning which was to hold the big one (trophy) of these up. I’m sure there are no doubters now. We are all ecstatic and really happy”.
Later in the night and into the early morning, the Socceroos were allowed full liberties to unwind and celebrate on. Most did not have any meaningful sleep by the time we saw them again a reception in Pitt Street Mall in the central business district of Sydney at 10am. Appropriately this urban open space is right next to the massive new Westfield shopping complex, a company founded and with majority ownership by Football Federation Australia Chairman Frank Lowy.
Welcoming the Socceroos squad on stage, Lowy emphasised that “there’s nothing better than winning”. And so the players took an encore bow to large crowd of fans and then spent the next half hour patiently signing merchandise and posing for photos with supporters of all ages and backgrounds. It was then back to the team hotel near Circular Quay to relax with families and friends, then check-out and get ready for travel back to their respective home bases and clubs throughout Australia and across the globe.
Being ready for the next challenge was already on the minds of most players, and only five months this will include the start of an arduous qualification campaign for the Russia 2018 World Cup. The new format in Asia means to be assured of success it will require a minimum of 18 matches over two group stages culminating in the latter half of 2017. A huge bonus is that as Asian Champions, the Socceroos have already qualified for a place in the Confederations Cup in Russia during June 2017.
The AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 has exceeded the expectations of most people associated with football. Even before the final and having previously been to many big football events including the 2010 World Cup finals, this tournament has truly been the most enjoyable ever experienced. The quality of football has been complemented by the amazing passion expressed in such diverse ways by the active fans of teams from visiting across Asia and so many different cultural backgrounds.
Football has been winner on and off the field, with so many mutual positives for Australia and all member nations of the AFC. That is something to celebrate in the Asian 21st century, with the biggest football participation in the world and still growing rapidly. It has been a privilege to share with football enthusiasts and fans some of the rich experiences and highlights on the journey of a lifetime in Australia 2015.
You can follow Pablo via Twitter @PabloFootball
Check more pictures from the memorable night