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For the first time in the Unofficial Football World Championships’ 139-year lineage, the UFWC title was contested at the Asian Cup final, with Japan and Australia competing to unify the Asian and UFWC title. And it was a gripping match, with extra time needed to separate two excellent teams.
Japan were the current Unofficial Football World Champions, having taken the UFWC title into the Asian Cup tournament and remained unbeaten throughout. Japan had won five UFWC title matches before today, while Australia had won just one. Japan had also won three Asian Cup finals. Australia, of course, are relatively new to Asian football.
Japan were without the injured Shinji Kagawa, who was replaced by Jungo Fujimoto. Defender Maya Yoshida replaced Daiki Iwamasa. Australia left Robbie Kruse on the bench, despite his impressive contribution to the 6-0 win over Uzbekistan. Keeper Mark Schwarzer made a record-breaking 88th international appearance for the Socceroos.
For the first time, major organisational problems were evident in Qatar – the host nation for World Cup 2022. Reports suggested that the stadium gates were closed an hour before kick-off, with hundreds of ticketholders stuck outside behind a security cordon, the game having been oversold.
The match itself began at a lively pace, with both sides pushing forward. Japan impressed with their passing game, but Australia quickly demonstrated that they held an aerial advantage – Everton’s Tim Cahill going closest with a typically astute header. Luke Wilkshire found plenty of space on the right flank, and troubled the Japanese defence with several dangerous crosses. The lively Harry Kewell headed one such cross over the bar.
Japan were enjoying a fair share of the possession, without really creating any clear cut chances, and midfielders Yasuhito Endo and Keisuke Honda struggling to find a pass that would penetrate the Socceroos back line.
With half an hour gone, Australia went very close again, as a Lucas Neill cross was headed on by Cahill to Kewell, who smashed his shot into the side netting.
Then, on 38 minutes, Honda finally managed to thread a pass through the Australian defence, finding Endo, who teed up Ryoichi Maeda. But Maeda’s shot went over the bar.
The first half finished goalless, but it was clear that Japan would have to get to grip with the succession of high balls being pumped into the box by Australia, and the heading ability of danger man Cahill. The box-to-box running of the Socceroo midfielders had also rattled the Japanese.
As the second half began, Australia’s aerial dominance continued to cause havoc in the Japanese defence. Luke Wilkshire’s cross hit the crossbar, then hit Cahill, bounced along the goaline, and was cleared. Cahill claimed a goal, Australia celebrated, but the referee waved play on. Replays showed that the ball had not crossed the line, and it was a great call from the referee and linesman – even without the aid of technological assistance.
Japan immediately looked to make a change, with Iwamasa waiting to come on. Oddly, though, it took a good five minutes for the substitution to actually happen, with Jungo Fujimoto the man replaced.
Gradually, Japan began to get a better foothold in the game. A Hasebe cross fell to Maeda on the edge of the six yard box, only for the Australian defence to hack clear. Maeda went close monets later, driving a shot into the side netting. Then a Yuto Nagatomo cross from the left found Shinji Okazaki, who headed wide the best chance of the match.
Then an even better chance fell to Australia, Kewell finding himself through with the keeper to beat, only for Eiji Kawashima to make a good save with an outstretched boot. As Australia regained the initiative, a David Carney drive was deflected wide by Hasebe.
But neither side was able to break the deadlock, and, with the score 0-0 after 90 minutes, the game went into extra time. Japan had suffered through extra time and penalties in their semi final against South Korea, while Australia were potentially fresher, having strolled past Uzbekistan in 90 minutes.
Extra time began with the Japanese defence again in disarray. Within a couple of minutes, two Carney crosses ricocheted around the Japanese six-yard box before eventually being hacked clear.
Sub Brett Emerton went close with a curling left-foot effort from the edge of the box, and then Australia introduced Melbourne Victory youngster Robbie Kruse, who made two and scored one in the win over Uzbekistan. And within seconds, Kruse saw his header from an Emerton cross tipped away by Kawashima.
Japan immediately responded, with Honda curling a shot past the post. Then Matt MacKay went close for Australia. But the first half of extra time ended scoreless.
Japan had proved their penalty shoot-out mettle in the semi final, but any thoughts they might try to play out this match were dispelled as the second half of extra time began, with a period of intense Japanese pressure, testing Australia with two corners in quick succession.
And then, finally, after 109 minutes of play, the deadlock was broken. Nagatomo’s cross from substitute Tadanari Lee in rare space, and he made no mistake, brilliantly left-foot volleying past Schwarzer. 1-0 to Japan. It was only the second goal Australia had conceded in the tournament.
To make things worse for the Socceroos, the partially fit Cahill had finally run out of steam, and had to be substituted.
Japan continued to press, and an Endo free kick forced a decent save from Schwarzer. But Australia weren’t about to give up, and continued to throw bodies forward.
As time ticked away, Australia were given one last chance with a free-kick on the edge of the box. Carney drove the ball into the Japanese wall, and a scramble ensued, but eventually the ball was cleared – and the final whistle was blown.
So Japan won 1-0 after extra time, retaining the UFWC title and winning the Asian Cup, unifying the titles for the very first time. The Blue Samurai never buckled under some intense aerial pressure from Australia, and took their opportunity when it came, with Lee’s excellent goal worthy of winning any game.
Australia more than played their part in a very good game, and were excellent in long stretches. But they suffered because of failing to take their chances.
Japan will now have an opportunity to savour their victory, and their status as combined Unofficial Football World Champions and Asian Cup winners. This was their sixth UFWC title match win, and their fourth Asian Cup final win.
The Blue Samurai’s next match will be a UFWC title defence against Montenegro on 25 March. We’ll be covering the aftermath of today’s match, and building up to the next one, here over the next few weeks. We’ll be starting with an Asian Cup recap, so keep checking back for all the latest on the Unofficial Football World Championships.
You can follow Paul Brown on Twitter @paulbrownUK.