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Five things we've learned from Qatar's Asian Cup

By James Montague
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The 2011 Asian Cup came to an end Saturday
  • Japan claimed a record fourth title after beating Australia 1-0
  • The tournament took place in Qatar, where the 2022 World Cup will be held
  • CNN looks at the six lessons learned at the Asian Cup
RELATED TOPICS

Doha, Qatar (CNN) -- The ticker-tape fell on the pitch at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar, with the Japanese victorious, the Australians vanquished.

It had been an exciting, eventful, even frenetic 2011 Asian Cup final. The Blue Samurai's 1-0 victory saw them win a record fourth continental title whilst the Socceroos, playing in their first final since joining the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, cemented themselves as a leading member of the AFC, even in defeat.

But the Asian Cup was always going to be much more significant than the football played on the pitch, especially after Qatar was controversially awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals two months previously. Here are the five things CNN learned at the tournament.

West Asia holds the power, East Asia takes the titles

Unlike South America, Europe or, to a certain extent, Africa, the Asian Football Confederation does not share a common kinship, an identifiable fraternity that transcends borders.

Whilst this distance and diversity is one of the positive aspects of Asian football, it has also created a balance of power between East Asia, with the likes of Japan and South Korea traditionally in the ascendancy, and West Asia centered on the Middle East.

Qatar aspires to 2022
We vow to immediately replace them by a highly-qualified international crew
--Saudi FA

Today it is the Middle East that holds the political power.

The current AFC chief is Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari who was pivotal in securing the 2022 World Cup finals for his country.

Just before the Asian Cup, Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein deposed South Korea's Chung Mong-Joon to become vice-president of FIFA. And if the rumors are to be believed, Bin Hammam could well stand against Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency later this year.

But on the pitch it has been a totally different story. Not a single West Asian team made the semifinals of the Asian Cup.

Holders Iraq were knocked out in the quarterfinals. Traditional power-house Saudi Arabia were humiliated. Iran limped out in the quarters while Kuwait and the UAE did not make it out of their groups.

Only Syria, Bahrain and Jordan showed any progress. In comparison, Australia and South Korea cruised to the semifinals. Australia even managed a 6-0 thumping of Uzbekistan.

The money and power may have shifted westwards, but the Middle East still has a lot to learn on the pitch.

Never, ever, take the Saudi job

Saudi Arabian state television gratuitously showed the haphazard footage on loop through the night. The nation had been humiliated and someone needed to be punished. And that someone was Jose Peseiro.

The Portuguese coach of the Saudi national team had been unceremoniously sacked minutes after the Green Falcons lost their first game of the campaign against Syria.

But that was not enough. Incensed by the defeat, the Saudi media filmed every moment of Peseiro's exit, from checking out of the hotel, to hounding him all the way to the departure gate at Doha International Airport, Saudi supporters hurling abuse as he went.

The Saudi national team job has always had a life expectancy shorter than a blowfly -- they have sacked their manager after the first game before, at the 2000 Asian Games and the 2002 World Cup -- but there was something vitriolic about Peseiro's departure, a desperation born out of Saudi Arabia's inexorable fall from being the best team in Asia to not even being the best team on the Gulf.

Worse was to follow. Veteran Nasser al Johar, who took over after the first game in 2000, steering the Saudi's to the final, couldn't repeat the trick. The final, 5-0 humiliation by Japan saw him sacked too, along with the President of the Saudi FA.

"We vow to immediately replace them by a highly-qualified international crew and domestic aides," the Saudi FA said in a statement. The question is: "is there anyone crazy enough to take the job?"

Eleven years is a long time to get it right

The reaction to Qatar's victory in the race to host the 2022 World Cup has been fierce.

Ahead of the Asia Cup 2011 final

Most focused on Qatar's suitability as a venue -- given that temperatures can hit 50 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

Even though none of the $50 billion infrastructure had been built, it was inevitable that the 2011 Asian Cup was seen as something of a litmus test for the 2022 tournament. At the very least, it was a chance to see Qatar in a footballing context.

So how did it fair? Overall, the stadiums and the organization of the teams went to plan. Afshin Ghotbi, the out-going coach of the Iranian national team, told CNN that he thought the training facilities and organization for the 16 teams was "world class".

The experience of the fans was very different. Although tickets were cheap and plentiful -- official tickets for group matches could be bought for as a little as $5 -- the stadiums remained stubbornly empty throughout the tournament. Whilst this is not unusual for the Asian Cup the empty seats will cause concern.

Worse were reports that anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people, many with tickets, were refused entry to the final for "arriving late". The organizing committee denies the charges, stating that doors were closed on the behest of the Qatari royal family's security detail, with only 700 fans with tickets left outside.

"It was just incredibly badly handled. There were kids and families, not causing any problem, being confronted by riot police and being told they weren't getting in," said Andy Richardson, Al Jazeera's sports correspondent.

"There were hundreds of people waving their tickets at our camera, people who had travelled from Japan, India, loads of Aussies."

At least they have 11 years to get it right.

If it's a winter World Cup, bring an umbrella and scarf

Meet India's David Beckham

A rare phenomenon was seen in Qatar during the Asian Cup: rain.

Temperatures dropped so markedly for the evening games that a thick jacket and scarf was required to keep the cold out too.

Perhaps it was in the confusion that, on arrival to the Asian Cup, Sepp Blatter declared that, rather than trust in the zero-carbon cooling technology that had been the cornerstone of Qatar's World Cup bid, he expected the tournament to be moved to January.

"I expect it to be in the winter because when you play football you must protect the main people, the players," he said.

There was uproar in Europe, whose league schedules would have to be ripped up. Mohamed bin Hammam himself rejected the idea of moving the tournament to January or sharing games with other Gulf states.

"I believe Qatar can stand alone and organize the competition by itself," he told British broadcaster Sky News.

"I'm really not very impressed by these opinions to distribute the game over the Gulf or change the time from July to January."

FIFA has since released a statement cooling its plans for a winter World Cup, even though Blatter told CNN's Pedro Pinto that he thought there was a "more than 50 per cent chance" of the tournament being held in January 2022.

"At this stage there are no concrete plans to change the international match calendar," FIFA clarified.

"Any potential move of the 2022 FIFA World Cup from a summer to a winter period would have to be initiated by the football association of Qatar."

Sun block or wooly hat? The jury is still out...

Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup. Really....

Qataris braced themselves for the worst after Uzbekistan had beaten their national team 2-0 in the opening game of the Asian Cup.

"Today we played a very bad game. I'm sorry for the fans, everybody," said French coach Bruno Metsu, after a glitzy opening ceremony had been deflated by defeat.

But Al Anabi, or The Maroon as the team is know, managed to reach the quarterfinals in the end. It was as much as could be expected for a team ranked 109th by FIFA, and far better than the naysayers expected, who pointed out that a World Cup has never been handed to such a lowly team in its history.

But in 2022, the Qatar national team will look very different thanks to the multi-billion dollar Aspire academy which opened in 2004.

Funded by the Qatari royal family, Aspire was set up to nurture sporting talent from Qatar and beyond, and the academy is already producing results.

"The facilities you see are truly world class," said Wayde Clews, Aspire's Director of Sport. "2010 was a watershed year for Aspire: some of the boys coming through the academy have found their way in to the Qatar Olympic squad...eight boys were in the squad for Asian Games."

Aspire has proved controversial, not least because it identifies talent in third world countries, bringing the best to Qatar.

As the national team is already full of naturalized players from South America and Africa, isn't Aspire simply looting Africa's footballing talent?

"There is no obstacle for these boys to go back and represent their home countries... it's an altruistic endeavor," insists Clews.

Even now, the local players are showing huge improvements.

"Now we are at the stage where our young players are as good as the better player from the better European leagues," explained head football coach Michael Browne.