Asian giants Iran, South Korea and Australia scrambled into next year’s World Cup on Tuesday after scenes of crowd anger and high tension on the final night of group qualifying.
Irate South Korean fans hurled water bottles and other debris after Iran booked their ticket with a 1-0 smash-and-grab win in Ulsan, following a tetchy build-up between the two teams.
South Korea also accused Iran coach Carlos Queiroz of making an obscene hand gesture at his rival Choi Kang-Hee, and said they expected a Fifa investigation. No comment was immediately available from Queiroz.
A South Korean newspaper condemned Iran’s players and officials, but made little mention of their own fans’ poor behaviour.
“When their victory was confirmed, all the Iranian players ran towards the South Korean bench, pumping their fists and making insulting gestures,” the Sport Chosun daily wrote in an editorial.
“There was no respect for the opposing team. They were not merely celebrating their victory. They stuck their tongues out at the crowd and jeered at them. They insulted and mocked South Korean soccer. The spirit of fair play and sportsmanship were completely forgotten,” the paper added.
“Those who are only good at playing games but have no respect for sportsmanship do not deserve to go to the World Cup.”
But some South Korean fans took to microblogging site Twitter with a different view of events.
“The water bottles thrown out to Iranian player showed to the whole world how ugly we are as a nation,” tweeted one, ulgongja.
Another, kcs9618, said: “I felt awful when seeing the Iranian players running around the stadium with their flag. But it felt even more awful seeing South Koreans throwing bottles towards them.”
It emerged after that South Korea had also qualified as Uzbekistan, despite beating Qatar 5-1, just missed out on goal difference. The Uzbeks will now face Jordan, 1-0 victors over Oman thanks to Ahmad Ibrahim’s 57th-minute goal, in a play-off.
Australia left it late before substitute striker Josh Kennedy earned a 1-0 win over Iraq in Sydney, enough to take the Socceroos through to their third successive World Cup.
“I’m sorry it wasn’t pretty, but we beat them... Let’s look at the positives tonight - we’re going to Brazil!” said captain Lucas Neill.
Iran, South Korea and Australia now join Japan, the Asian Cup-holders who booked their ticket a fortnight ago, at next year’s World Cup as the only countries to have qualified alongside hosts Brazil.
Although all four Asian qualifiers are familiar names at the World Cup, the year-long elimination process has been hard-fought and came down to the last week of the final group stage.
Tensions were high on Tuesday and especially in Ulsan, where South Korea had promised to “make life painful” for Iran and to draw “tears of blood” from their captain, Javad Nekounam.
Ex-Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-Gook tested Rahman Ahmadi with a stinging attempt from distance but despite dominating the first half, South Korea struggled to create clear chances.
Iran started the second period with more ambition and on 59 minutes, they were suddenly in front thanks to a defensive howler from Kim Young-Gwon and the alert thinking of Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Defender Kim failed to make a simple clearance on the touchline and had his pocket picked by Ghoochannejhad, who scampered goalwards and bent a left-footed shot around Jung Sung-Ryong.
South Korea pressed desperately for the equaliser and Kim Young-Gwon nearly made amends for his mistake but put a free header wide near the end. Lee Keun-Ho also came close to scoring in injury time.
“It was a very difficult match. We knew that we played a great team,” Queiroz said. “My team played with a realistic approach, to try and wait for a weak point in the Korean team and with a counter-attacking attitude.”
South Korea’s Choi, who is now stepping down from the job, preferred not to talk about his row with Queiroz.
“I am not going to comment on that. After this loss, whatever I say may sound like an excuse,” said Choi.
In Tashkent, Uzbekistan needed a hatful of goals but they went behind when a botched pass out of defence gave Abdulqadir Ilyas an easy chance on 36 minutes.
Uzbekistan took up residence in Qatari territory and they finally got their reward through substitute striker Bahodir Nasimov’s toe-poke on 60 minutes.
Oleg Zoteev’s dribble and shot put Uzbekistan in front on 72 minutes, and the massed fans at Bunyodkor Stadium dared to dream when Nasimov scored their third from close range two minutes later.
Late strikes from Odil Ahmedov and Ulugbek Bakaev raised excitement to fever pitch but the clock quickly ticked through injury time and the former Soviet republic were kept waiting for a first foray to football’s biggest stage.
Earlier in Sydney, Australia wasted countless chances in wet conditions before coach Holger Osieck replaced a visibly angry Tim Cahill with Kennedy in the 77th minute.
The towering Nagoya Grampus striker justified the substitution when he saved the day with a clinical, 83rd-minute header that not only sent the 80,000 crowd wild, but also dispatched his team to next year’s World Cup.