Our family is following the biennial AFC U23 Asian Cup “Uzbekistan 2022”! The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is the governing body of soccer for 47 countries in Asia and Oceania. Uzbekistan is a serendipitous host because China was originally going to host the tournament but due to COVID restrictions there, the Cup was moved to Uzbekistan. It was initially going to be in January, but with the Omicron wave hitting Tashkent about that time, it was moved to June.
The U23 is an age restriction and this competition develops the future men’s national soccer teams. I spoke with the Australian Public Relations Manager at one of the games and he mentioned that most of the teams selected players they are considering for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Olympic men’s soccer moved to have the Under 23 teams compete so the youth team could play in a global tournament between World Cups. In the Olympics, however, the U23 team can have three players over the age of 23.
Tickets in the VIP section cost a reasonable 50,000 UZS ($4.75) and other than the Uzbekistan games, the stadiums had few people in them. It was easy to bring the family, and we attended three games.
Australia 1 – Turkmenistan 0 (Quarterfinals – Milly Stadium)
It was a bit of a surreal experience being the only native English-speaking fans of probably 20 people total in the prime seating section. The tickets were about $4.50 each and I convinced Nadia and Ocean to go. We were behind the benches and could shout and be heard by the Australian team. The Turkmenistan section of approximately 500 people was on the other side of the stadium. Turkmenistan’s strategy of “flopping” and wasting time was frustrating to watch. I think they believed they were over-matched and the goal was to get to penalty kicks. Fortunately, Australia scored in the 70th minute. Turkmenistan started playing aggressively after that and actually had several good chances to score goals. They should have done this from the start!
My wife Nadia was born and raised in Melbourne and she was excited to cheer for the Australians. There were no Australian fans at the game and many of the supporters were with the senior team. Australia defeated UAE and Peru to qualify for November’s World Cup in Qatar this week.
Japan 3 – South Korea 0 (Quarterfinals – Pakhtakor Stadium)
This game was much more entertaining than the first game we attended. There is a large Korean population in Tashkent and their section was full. We sat in the Japan section because we used to follow the team when we lived in Osaka (2014-2019). It was a great atmosphere and we were singing along with the “Nippon” cheers. I felt sorry for the Korean delegation because Japan was much faster than the Koreans. Their counter attacks were difficult to defend and they could have scored more than the 3 goals. Korea put in a good effort and looked good in their pink/red uniforms.
Saudi Arabia 2 – Australia 0 (Semifinals – Pakhtakor Stadium)
The only tickets that were on sale were a section of mixed Australian/Saudi fans. Of course, we were the only Aussie fans, surrounded by about 150 Saudi supporters. Saudi Arabia was a much better team. They were faster and more robust and the Aussies couldn’t get much going against the dominant Saudis. Most of the Saudi team were Africans rather than Arabs which was surprising. In researching at the demographics of the country, it is 90% Arab and 10% Afro-Arab which I didn’t know. It makes sense with the kingdom being so close to Africa. The highlights of the game were the two penalty kicks that were saved by both teams. We had a bit of fun with the Saudi fans and despite the dominant performance of the Saudis, we had a good time.
The finals are Sunday with Saudi Arabia taking on the host Uzbekistan who defeated Japan 2-0 in the other semifinal game. Japan and Australia square off today in the consolation game.