After the success of our two Arabic adventurers in bringing us their Asian Diary from the first week of the Asian Cup we were delighted to secure the services for one game only of Jon Lawrence, author of Astoldby,me. as well as being an ex-colleague, he is one of the most travelled men I know so who better to report on the semi-final featuring his native Australia and Uzbekistan.
It was purely by chance that I found myself in Doha for the Asian Cup semi-final clash between the Socceroos and Uzbekistan’s White Wolves. Just a few days earlier, I had been told by my employer that I was required to spend a week with our client here while one of my colleagues installed their new system.
I reluctantly admit that I had not been following the Asian Cup closely – I’d been very busy at work and the matches were on at ungodly hours of the morning (and not on free-to-air TV). I was only vaguely aware that it was even in Qatar.
A few minutes of research later, I was very excited, having discovered that my trip would coincide with the Semi-Finals, with the Socceroos looking much more positive under new coach Holger Osieck and about to tackle the Iraqis in the Quarters.
I was in the air while the Socceroos overcame the reigning Asian champions with a late extra-time goal by Harry Kewell and was very relieved to learn of the result while changing planes in Abu Dhabi.
Getting tickets for the semi-final was no issue at all as the match was far from sold out. So, after finishing work at a pleasingly early hour, I dragged my colleague, who despite his German heritage had never been to a football (soccer) match before, off to the Villagio mall to pick up our tickets and meet some of the Green and Gold Army boys for a pre-match soft drink.
The mall is one of those Gulf state marvels, complete with Venetian canal and gondolas and an ice rink, home of the world famous Qatar Raiders. It was also conveniently adjacent to the impressive 50,000 seat Khalifa Stadium. The organisers had curiously decided that rather than allow spectators to walk the 200 metres from the mall into the stadium, they would force everyone on a two kilometre march around the outside of the complex.
Though this was pretty tedious, it did provide the opportunity to admire some of the local interpretations of the Australian flag, none of which were right and some of which were wildly inaccurate. There’s been a bit of discussion back home about changing the flag this week (Wednesday was Australia Day). Without getting into that argument, based on what I saw outside the stadium, I think it’s pretty clear that the current design fails the ‘easily drawn by children’ test, which is supposedly an important attribute of any good flag.
We found our way to our seats (2nd row, near the corner post) in what was a very empty section in a pretty empty stadium. I’d tried to get seats on the opposite side, where the bulk of the Australian supporters were but had been unable to convince the website to sell me more than one ticket in that section. So, I’d splurged on the most expensive seats in the house – 40 Rials ($11) each. Clearly, like most things involving the government here, revenue is not a high priority.
The atmosphere in the stadium was pretty intimate, and not at all what I would have expected for a game of this stature, but then Qatar is not a normal place. The official crowd was just shy of 25,000 though I suspect that included the largely disinterested rent-a-crowd schoolkids that were marched in during the first half.
It was a little intimidating being largely alone in our section, as I’m a pretty vocal spectator, and my unassuming work colleague wasn’t offering much in the way of support. We were sitting directly behind one of the main cameras and he proceeded to train his camera on me throughout my stirring rendition of the Australian national anthem. Thankfully, it appears that the producer was disinterested in this shot, especially as I rather obviously forgot the words to the second line.
With the game underway, it became obvious very quickly that the Aussies were a completely different outfit from the over-cautious defenders that they were under previous coach Pim Verbeek. A red-hot chance was saved by the Uzbek keeper within the opening 2 minutes, and we didn’t have to wait long for Harry Kewell’s sweet finish to open the scoring in the fifth minute.
The Uzbeks had plenty of possession for the next period of play and had a real chance from a free-kick which went wide but otherwise didn’t really threaten. The Aussies were denied a couple of genuine chances due to some very dubious offside calls, including one that would have had two attackers against the keeper for an almost certain goal. They went 2-0 up in the 34th minute, when Sasa Ognenovski knocked in a loose ball after the Uzbeks failed to deal with a free-kick from just outside the area.
Harry Kewell got an early shower in the 53rd minute and his replacement, A-League striker Robbie Kruse nearly scored with his first touch. The Uzbeks troubled Aussie keeper Schwarzer once before David Carney increased the margin to 3 in the 65th minute.
This was my moment to shine, as I once again attracted the attention of the camera man in front of me. This time, the producer thought I was sufficiently interesting to hold on me for a full four seconds. You can relive my moment in the spotlight at 2:38 in this highlights package.
Whatever was left of the contest then left the field along with Ulugbek Bakaev who was shown his second yellow card for chopping down Luke Wilkshire, and the Uzbeks promptly capitulated. From this point the Socceroos threatened to score almost every time they had the ball, and the 4th goal came soon after when Kruse set up Brett Emerton.
The 5th and 6th goals came within a minute of each other, scored by Carl Valeri and Kruse respectively (his first international goal). That’s where the rout ended, though the score could easily have climbed a lot closer to double figures.
The Socceroos haven’t had a match like it since the bad old days of the Oceania qualifiers, but Uzbekistan is no American Samoa (beaten by the Socceroos by a world record 31-0 in 2001), and this was the Asian Cup Semi-Final! While we were certainly on the softer side of the draw, this game still doesn’t reflect terribly well on the overall standard of football in the Asian Confederation. That said, it does say some pretty positive things about the current health of football in Australia (not to be confused with Australian Football, which is a whole other matter).
Assuming Etihad gets me back to Melbourne on time, I will have a few short hours to enjoy a long-awaited and much-needed beer before heading out to watch the showdown with the Blue Samurai early on Sunday morning, Melbourne time. They knocked us out in a penalty shoot-out in the Quarter-Finals at the last Asian Cup and showed on Tuesday that they still have the mettle, creaming the Koreans 3-0 on penalties. We did of course do them 3-1 in the group stage in Germany in 2006 and Timmy Cahill knocked a couple past them when we beat them 2-1 in Melbourne in the last qualifier for South Africa, last year. Under Osieck’s guidance, the Socceroos are clearly much more focused on scoring goals, so it should be a great game.
More photos from Jon’s Qatar adventure can be found here.