The event didn't generate many headlines globally, or even locally for the countries that were involved, but the 2013 EAFF East Asian Cup provided a glimpse of Asia's best national soccer sides as they prepare for next year's World Cup in Brazil.
Yoichiro Kakitani scored the winning goal in injury time in Sunday's final game to give Japan a 2-1 victory over South Korea in front of a raucous and partisan crowd in Seoul's Jamsil Olympic Stadium. The dramatic victory gave Japan its first East Asia Cup title in five tries and secured regional bragging rights until at least next year's World Cup.
Both Japan and South Korea have already qualified for Brazil next year, as well as Australia, which took part in the East Asian Cup for the first time. China, the only team in the tournament that won't be playing in the 2014 World Cup, finished second after Kakitani's dramatic goal elevated Japan to first place in round-robin play.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But the competition may prove most meaningful to last-place Australia, who lost twice and drew once in its three games. Despite the abysmal results, the East Asian Cup was exactly the kind of preparation the Socceroos needed after switching from the cozy confines of the Oceania to the much more challenging Asian Football Federation in 2006.
The move has proved to be a boon for Australia, which has qualified for three consecutive World Cups – as representatives of the AFC in 2010 and the upcoming 2014 finals. The Socceroos wrapped up their bid in June after finishing second to Japan in the five-team Group B. South Korea and Iran qualified from Group A, while Uzbekistan and Jordan will square off in a playoff to decide who will face South America's fifth-place finisher for the last World Cup spot.
Australia has a series of friendly matches coming up – beginning with a September 7 date with Brazil – but will not play another in-competition match until next June's World Cup. That's why despite the less-than-ideal outcomes at the East Asian Cup, the event served an important purpose for coach Holger Osieck.
The Socceroos held host South Korea to a scoreless draw in the opener and rallied to tie Japan late in the second half only to concede the winning goal in the 79th minute in a 3-2 loss. Australia's defense utterly collapsed late against China in the finale, as both teams combined to score four goals after the 87th minute in a thrilling but sloppy 4-3 victory for China.
Mitchell Duke was perhaps the star of the tournament for Australia, scoring two goals and providing much-needed energy for the Socceroos' attack. Goalkeeper Eugene Galkovic was instrumental in the surprising scoreless draw against a high-flying South Korean squad. And Tomi Juric, who just turned 22 in July, may turn out to be Australia's next rising star with some inspired play.
Matt McKay, the Socceroos’ captain who played for Korean and Chinese clubs the past two years, said these matches will do Australia a lot of good.
“This tournament is really useful for us,” McKay told the International Herald Tribune. “It gives a lot of our younger players an opportunity to show what we can do. To play three games in a week against tough opposition is exactly what we need, and it shows the benefits for Australian football to being in Asia.”
That might be somewhat lost at the moment Down Under, given Australia’s performance and also the fact that the tournament was overshadowed by the recent visits of Manchester United (in Sydney) and Liverpool (in Melbourne). But Osieck got what he wanted out of it, which was seeing how the Socceroos’ young guns would perform in a competitive environment.
"We came to this tournament with a developmental team and if you see the lineup (vs. China) one player (McKay) had more caps than the rest of the team together," the German coach, who took over the Australian national team after the 2010 World Cup, said at a press conference. “That was definitely the purpose to be here, to play against good Asian teams who are in full swing and in their season.”
He added, "I needed to see (Adam) Taggart, I needed to see Juric, I needed to see (Connor) Pain, Duke again. And I now have a fair picture of who is standing where."
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.