Korea Republic dominated the opening half and did enough in the second to overcome Iraq 2-0, and book themselves a spot in the final for the first time since 1988.
Light intermittent rain did little to dampen spirits a crowd of over 36,000 and if anything it just helped to ‘slick’ the pitch up even more. “Osod Al Rafideen” (Lions of the Two Rivers) had been backing up after a thrilling and arduous quarter-final triumph over arch rivals Iran which went to extra time and then a penalty shoot out. They also had one less day of recovery than their semi-final opponents.
Despite this disadvantage, Iraqi fans remain optimistic their team could somehow prevail, and in response many hundreds began congregating outside Stadium Australia well over three half hours before kick-off. Traditional song, music, dance and colourful displays created a carnival type atmosphere to channel their hopes and entertain other onlookers.
Although, the vast majority of Korean fans arrived much later at the stadium, once inside it was clear their numbers had far exceeded their opponents support and in voice too. At the front the active section was a group of women looking absolutely splendid in traditional dress and with Korean drums.
The Asian Cup and all major football tournaments are far more than just about the game itself; they attract and inspire a rich diversity of cultural expression and creative ways to galvanise support. The fans are the most important element along with the teams and players of course.
Korea opened strongly and confidential like the favoured team, and quickly took the initiative. It was apparent from soon after the kick off that Iraq looked as if they had been drained emotionally and physically from the previous match. Other than an occasional counter attack, they sat back and absorbed the pressure and waves of attacks from the Taeguk Warriors.
In the third minute, a wonderful cross almost found Han Kyo Won who only just failed to get in a header on the far post. In the 19th minute, a flowing counter attacked culminated in Son Heung-min launching a fierce shot from 20 metres out which goalkeeper Jalal Hassan Hachim palmed above the bar.
Only one minute later Korea took the lead when a curling and dipping free kick on the right side by defender Kim Jin Su was headed in by Lee Jeonghyeop on the far post. Not surprisingly, the mood of Iraqi fans became very subdued and by contrast those of their opponents increasingly buoyant.
Iraq’s only period of convincing build-up and attacking play was for a few minutes shortly before half time. This included a shot by Amjed Kalaf from over 15 metres out well saved by keeper Kim Jin Hyeon.
Only four minutes into the second half and just on the edge of the penalty area, Lee chested down neatly into the path of Kim Jin Hyeon who fired in a low shot into the corner of the net for 2-0 and the game seemed to be almost beyond the reach of Iraq. Further chances were created six minutes later only to be denied a third goal.
In response, Iraq somehow lifted themselves to try and make it a real contest and started to dominate possession for the first time. They had an opportunity in the 57th minute when Alaa Abdulameer had his shot on the far post blocked, and on 75 minutes a deflected shot was saved comfortably.
The game then drifted away from Iraq and not surprisingly their challenge faltered, with few further opportunities created as Korea was content to protect its lead.
Full time in steady drizzle and the many thousands of Korean fans, most of whom were women wearing colourful array of plastic ponchos, rose to celebrate and salute their team’s performance.
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After their loss captain Younus Mahmood said “congratulations to the South Korean team. I think my team played very well today but there were some mistakes first half from free kicks and the South Korea team scored. The Iraqi team have a great potential and will look forward to the future with these new players.”
Their coach Radhi Swadi acknowledged that “we knew this was going to be a difficult match. The Korean team have a lot of quality players who play outside of Korea in very high quality leagues. We had two mistakes today that they scored through. I want to thank the players for producing a quality match. I hope we can perform well in our last match (play off for third place).”
Nam Tae Hee was named ‘player of the match’ and when asked about what this victory means for the players he responded with “this semi-final game was crucial for us to advance to the final. We know we have not won this competition for a very long time. All the players are united and I think this gave us the good result.”
Reflecting on his performance tonight “I know I can perform at an even higher level. I think with a few more games I can improve myself.” Nam said.
Korea Republic head coach Uli Stielike revealed that “when we came here to Australia we left Korea as the third ranked team in Asia. What I said before leaving Korea was that I want to come back with a better result. The better result came today. Everything that is coming now, we cannot speak about pressure. Everything we do now will be an extra. We will try to get this cup (AFC Asian Cup) but the team did what they had to do (today).”
As to which team is expected to meet Korea in the final, he said that “Australia is the strongest team in the tournament. They play very well and cool, and each player knows exactly what they have to do. So, for me no doubt about it, Australia will go forward.”
Korea Republic will now have an extra day for recovery ahead of the final on Saturday at Stadium Australia, and importantly already in base camp in the harbour city.
It is now time to journey by train back up to Newcastle for the second semi-final between Australia and UAE. Heavy showers and a possible thunderstorm are forecast, and already rain has been steadily falling along the coast of New South Wales. No matter, the Socceroos’ fans will fill the stadium and be “singing in the rain” as they help to propel the team to victory and the opportunity for a date with destiny.
There will be respect for Australia’s opponents, and yet the conditions and one less day for recovery will make this a massive challenge for the UAE. The host nation including millions of fans watching live on television will be hoping and indeed expecting the Socceroos to be victorious.
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