Time warps at East Asian Cup qualifiers
Hong Kong-Australia row is overwhelmed on the silliness scale by the bizarre clock-watching antics of the hapless Taiwanese
The East Asian Cup qualifying tournament kicked off snappishly last week with hosts Hong Kong accusing favourites Australia of being arrogant and disrespectful. Emotions eventually cooled during the week, along with the weather, as Australia won the tournament on goal difference and then respectfully thanked everyone. Ultimately, who were the real winners and losers?
The surprising accusations started in the Chinese-language media and Hong Kong interim coach Kim Pan-gon was astute to join in to rebuke Australia coach Holger Osieck for his perceived arrogance.
"If you don't respect [Hong Kong], you will suffer. I hope he can learn something from this," said Kim, who clearly intended to fire up his team.
Osieck countered: "I never speak negative about opponents."
There may have been some mischief afoot from the local media in their take on Osieck's reported comments in the Australian media about the tournament scheduling.
"I think it's very unusual to have four games every second day and for an international tournament, that's not very appropriate. Obviously, some people have to learn what it means to organise an international tournament," Osieck said. Cue the accusations.
In addition to the unusual scheduling, there were some other strange happenings.
Some Guam players wore gloves despite temperatures of 19 degrees Celsius. Apparently, Hong Kong's weather at this time of year is considered too cold and wintry compared with 31 degrees in Guam.
Another strange sight was watching a losing side waste time. Taiwan did this with 10 minutes left when trailing 5-1 to North Korea. To the amazement of everyone in Mongkok Stadium, as another North Korean attack ended with the ball rolling harmlessly towards the Taiwan goalkeeper, he refused to pick up the ball and put it back into play. A stunned North Korea player had to check himself and then run towards the keeper to hurry him up.
Taiwan did this again against Australia, this time as early as the 12th minute when they conceded the first of eight goals in Hong Kong Stadium. To soccer minnows like Taiwan, ranked 176th in the world, reducing the amount of playing time to minimise the number of goals conceded is a game plan.
There was also the non-appearance of a Hong Kong referee Five nations - China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand - each supplied one referee and one assistant referee (linesman). However, it seems taking leave and being holed up in a Hong Kong hotel for 12 days, without contact with the outside world, did not sit well with the referee, forcing the organisers to bring a replacement from Japan.
Considering the competent performance of the Hong Kong linesman, our own referee missed a chance to demonstrate his skills, especially since most of the visiting match officials with Fifa badges did not impress.
In the final match, which Australia won 8-0 against Taiwan, at least four minutes should have been added due to six substitutions and three goals in the second half. Bizarrely, zero minutes were added.
Time wasting and the lack of added time becomes significant because both Guam and Taiwan placed equal last, scoring and conceding the same number of goals. Taiwan's negative tactics, along with the suspect South Korean referee's decision not to play any added time, perhaps allowed them to escape being the outright tournament losers.
Guam, ranked 181st in the world, impressed and did not deserve to be joint last. They, along with Australia, were the only teams to play four matches in seven days. The others played four matches in nine days.
Although the official player of the tournament was Australia's Brett Emerton, who started two matches and scored once, unofficially the most valuable player was Guam keeper Doug Herrick who plays for Seattle Sounders in the MLS. Despite conceding 17 goals, Herrick made numerous outstanding saves and always played in the right spirit.
In winning the qualifying tournament, Australia guaranteed themselves a minimum payout of US$3 million at the four-team finals to be hosted in South Korea in July 2013. North Korea lost out by four goals, and picked up the least amount of cards (three cautions).
Hong Kong were the dirtiest team, with 10 yellows and one red card, but they were winners, too. They can take pride in their performance against Australia before eventually yielding in the 85th minute as their fitness ultimately failed them. If they can complement their improved playing style and mental strength with extra fitness, Hong Kong can look forward to competing well in the years ahead.