Controversy sours Asian Cup final

By Alastair Himmer

Beijing - The 2004 Asian Cup ended exactly as it had begun - soured by controversy - after Japan beat hosts China 3-1 in a politically-charged final.

Japan won their third Asian Cup title on Saturday after two hotly-disputed goals, provoking angry scenes in Beijing as Chinese fans hurled bottles, burned Japanese flags and fought pitched battles with police.

It brought an ugly end to an Asian Cup that was framed by blazing political rows that reached the highest levels of power.

Such was the animosity shown towards the Japan team by Chinese fans that a row erupted between the governments of both countries, each blaming the other for inflaming the situation.

More than 6 000 security staff were deployed in and around the stadium for the final, with riot police, soldiers and SWAT teams in position to prevent crowd trouble.

Emotions in China still run high over Japan's military invasion and brutal occupation of parts of the country from 1931 until 1945 when tens of millions died.

China coach Arie Haan angrily refused to collect his runners-up medal after three controversial Japanese goals, including a blatant handball for Japan's second.

The tournament began on a sour note after a top Asian official accused Beijing fans of being rude in a public tirade following the opening match.

Peter Velappan, general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), also voiced doubts that Beijing could host a successful Olympics in 2008.

The backlash from the state-run Chinese media was swift and furious, forcing Velappan to make a face-saving apology.

However, it was too late to avoid serious embarrassment to the AFC.

The Asian Cup's credibility was further damaged by disciplinary problems on the pitch with 17 players sent off in 32 matches.

Three-times champions Iran were serial offenders, with four combined dismissals in their semi-final defeat and 4-2 victory over Bahrain in the third-place game.

Iran had also brought shame to the Asian Cup in the group stages when three defenders were suspended for violent conduct after a fiery 2-2 draw with Oman.

Mohammad Nosrati was kicked out of the tournament after stamping on an opponent, along with referee Abdul Rahman of Bahrain, who was sent home for failing to spot the incident.

However, a tournament plagued by controversy threatened to descend into farce when Japan beat Jordan in a penalty shootout that started at one end and finished at the other.

Japan, held 1-1 by Jordan after extra time, reached the semi-finals amid ugly scenes having persuaded the referee to switch ends after missing their first two penalties.

Jordan, dubbed the "Greece of Asia" by their coach, missed four of their six kicks at the other end as their first Asian Cup campaign ended in heartbreak and bitter recriminations.

Meanwhile, Philippe Troussier became the first of two coaching casualties, sacked by Qatar after they were humbled 2-1 by Indonesia in their opening match.

The Frenchman's dismissal came four years after leading Japan to the title in Lebanon.

Dutchman Gerard van der Lem was also fired by Saudi Arabia after the three-times champions sensationally finished bottom of Group C.

Almost lost amid the problems was the achievement of tiny Bahrain, who reached the semi-finals under Croatian coach Srecko Juricic.

Their success was in stark contrast to mighty South Korea, who crashed out in the quarter-finals just two years after their amazing run to the last four of the World Cup.

On a brighter note, Iraq brought a ray of hope to the war-torn country by battling to the last eight despite having to train alongside grazing sheep in Baghdad.

But the valiant endeavour of Iraq, Bahrain and Jordan failed to rescue the tarnished image of Asian soccer after a competition dominated by politics, violence and controversial referees.

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