After a two hour mid- afternoon flight from Brisbane, it was out to Canberra Stadium for the match between China PR and DPR Korea. In stark contrast to the conditions in Queensland over the previous two days, the weather for this final game of Group B was almost perfect; at kick off just on 19 degrees, clear and with light winds.
Indications prior to game day were that strong ticket sales would lead to a bumper crowd.
Pre-match entertainment outside the stadium included traditional Chinese dancers and music, and face painting for fans.
The mood of supporters, most of who were aligned with China, was buoyant and already celebratory in terms of another marvellous opportunity to watch their national team. Many thousands of expats had made the trip to the national capital from Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere to be part of history. Canberra also has its own very sizeable Chinese-Australian community as well as a huge student population of Chinese students at the two high standard universities.
By contrast, fans of DPR Korea had not been able to travel to the Asian Cup due to restrictions imposed by the regime of their own nation. It was instead left to local football enthusiasts to provide improvised support, including creative costumes and props, for the visiting national team also known as the “Chollima” (thousand mile horse).
Inside the stadium it quickly became obvious that support would overwhelmingly be for “Zhong Guo Dui” (Team China). Although around kick off the crowd seemed to no more than about 10-12 thousand people. However, as is too often the case with Australian sports events latecomer fans continued to stream into the stadium for up to 30 minutes into the first half.
The official attendance was later announced as just over 18,000, perhaps around half of who were in support of China. Indeed it became sea of red against the backdrop of this compact stadium set in scenic bushland and parklands adjacent to the Australian Institute of Sport.
The game was less than one minute old when a poor attempt to head the ball to safety allowed China’s Sun Ke to nip in and slip the ball past the keeper into the net for 1-0. After 15 minutes, a dangerous cross from the right came across the face of goal and Yu Hai just failed to connect at full stretch.
DPR Korea did not have their first chance until the 35th minute from a long range strike by Jon Kwang. After 39 minutes, they missed a golden opportunity to equalise when O Hyok Chol set up Jong Il Gwan to be one-on-one with the goal keeper and yet he put the ball over the bar.
Only three minutes later China extended their lead to 2-0 when a cross from the left to the far post allowed Sun Ke to head in his second goal when the keeper should have done much better. Just before the interval Yu Hai subtly chipped over stranded keeper Ri Myong Guk only for Jon Kwang to head off on the line.
The second half, DPR Korea came out with greater resolve and in the 56th minute Jong Il Gwan found himself in space on the far post to turn inside. His left footed low shot was blocked on the line to almost bizarrely cannon another close by defender and finally the post into the net for 2-1.
In the 80th minute fans behind the goal at one end with good humour and some cheek brought out many laughs on the terraces to do the “Poznan” in recognition of the their adopted team from DPR Korea. It was just another grassroots example of football helping to cut through political barriers.
Late in the game, China increasingly seemed content to sit back to defend their lead and in the minute a magnificent strike from 25 metres by substitute So Hyon Uk for DPR Korea hit the cross bar and away. However, their arch rivals held on much to the delight of their adoring supporters inside and later outside the ground.
Kai who works in the wealth management industry, and his friends Harris (adopted English speaking name) and Chen, were originally from Guangzhou in Canton Province and came by car from their Sydney homes for the match.
“China dominated for the first half, but as soon as no 10 was substituted we were not leading the game…still we are very happy with the result” Kai said.
When asked whether or not China could beat Australia, he reacted with “reasonable thinking it is going to be 50/50 cent chance”. He feels that his nation’s performance at this Asian Cup already “exceeds the expectations of Chinese fans for sure”.
His favourite player is “the goalkeeper (Wang Dalei) because he saved a penalty in the first game and he’s a rising star in China, and we are very happy to see such a young guy in the team”.
The group plans to be at a semi-final in Newcastle if China can somehow prevail in Brisbane on Thursday. On their performances so far they will provide the Socceroos with stiff opposition, yet will need to improve a lot further to be a realistic chance of upsetting the host nation. Also, they will nervously be awaiting the outcome of back injury concerns for star midfielder and captain Zheng Zhi.
Tomorrow allows for a ‘rest day’ to recharge the batteries ahead of being able to witness in Canberra first hand one of the last two games of the Group stage. The Iraq versus Palestine match on Tuesday will be another celebration of football involving teams and their supporters from a region of the world that has endured so much. Let football passions bring them some joy!
You can follow Pablo via Twitter @PabloFootball