The 16th Asian Games produced a triumphant host nation, plenty of footballing endeavour and lots of entertainment. In stark contrast to the continental tournament running parallel, the African Cup of Nations, the Asian Games’ 24 group games didn’t have a single drab nil-nil and better yet not even a single draw.
From the North Koreans and their own band of Ultras doing the Poznan to an absolutely epic Iran vs. Iraq derby that produced two goals in each half of extra-time in the undoubted game of the tournament that eventually saw the less-fancied Iraqis conquer their rivals in a penalty shoot-out, the 16th Asian Cup was a resounding success.
Australia’s hosting has raised the bar for future Asian Cup tournaments; record crowds flocked to the three-week tournament that pitted Asia’s best and its up-and-comers.
The most prominent up-and-comer was the impressive Gulf nation the United Arabs Emirates (UAE), who eliminated Japan on penalties in the quarterfinal. They were eventually knocked out in the semifinal by eventual champions, and of course host nation, Australia. But with UAE is where we find the first ‘One to Watch,’ the unofficial ‘Player of the Tournament.’
OMAR ABDULRAHMAN, 23, Al Ain
The UAE number 10 lit up the tournament and left many on watching Australian citizens asking their A-League clubs to go out and sign the David Luiz styled creative midfielder. That move never materialised but the Abdulrahman’s stock rose greatly during the tournament. His calmness, speed of thought and booming confidence were evident in his panenka penalty in the shoot-out win against holders Japan. He has been linked to moves to some European big boys before, including Arsenal and Barcelona, but perhaps concerned that his creativity didn’t outweigh his defensive negligence they opted not to pursue, however I’m sure it won’t be long before we see Abdulrahman at a top European side.
MASSIMO LUONGO, 22, Swindon Town
The official ‘Player of the Tournament’ was Swindon Town’s midfielder Massimo Luongo and his dribble and 20-yard drive that opened the scoring in a tightly contested final with South Korea is prime evidence of his strong influence on the tournament.
Luongo has the arduous 15,000 km journey as well as the mental voyage from scoring what looked likely to be the winning goal, until the 91st minute Korean equaliser by Son Hueng-Min, in front of 73,000 people in an international competition final to playing Barnsley in under a week. But, as Swindon push for promotion to the Championship and with a number of clubs interested in 5 million pound rated former Tottenham youngster, the future looks bright for the Australian pin-up boy.
SARDAR AZMOUN, 20, Rubin Kazan
Iran’s 20-year-old striking starlet was exquisite in seeing Iran through to the second-round of the Asian Cup before their thrilling exit against Iran. Azmoun scored a leaping header in that fixture and also produced a Bergkamp-esque pirouette and prodded finish to see off 2022 World Cup host Qatar in the group stage. The turn and finish showcased the exciting prospects quickness and close control that has seen him highly touted as one of Asia’s brightest talents.
LEE JEONG-HYUP, 23, Sangju Sangmu
The military man stepped into the Korean squad as a relative unknown and somewhat surprising choice by new coach Uli Stielike. But, he rewarded his German coach two goals in two crucial matches for the Red Devils. His goal against Australia that saw South Korea top their group by winning all three games had his nation believing that they could repeat the feat against the host in the final, and become Asian Cup champion for the first time for 55 years. The athletic striker is currently halfway through his military service, which prevents him from moving to another club until next year. But, as long as his development continues he could be a much sought after individual given his hardworking etiquette and goal scoring ability.