Competition for Asian supremacy in eleven-a-side football is finely balanced as evidenced by the finale to last year’s FIFA World Cup qualifying in the world’s most populous continent. The same cannot be said on the futsal court, however, as IR Iran once again underlined their supremacy in emphatic fashion.
The Iranians stormed to a 12th continental victory in Chinese Taipei on Sunday, retaining the title they reclaimed two years ago. Only Japan have broken Iran’s stranglehold, winning on three occasions, but the east Asians had no answer in the tournament decider this time. Iran proved their breakthrough third-place finish at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 was no fluke, with an unusually heavy 4-0 scoreline in the decider.
Broad reach throughout Asia
A total of 30 teams from all corners of Asia competed in the qualifying competition, demonstrating the growing appeal of the game across much of the continent. Chinese Taipei hosted the event for the first time, though they previously welcomed the globe’s best for the Futsal World Cup in 2004.
That 30-strong crowd was cut to 16 teams for the ten-day event in New Taipei City. Much focus was, of course, on the home side but locals were to be left frustrated with Chinese Taipei edged out of qualification by Bahrain, despite a win over Malaysia. Vietnam topped the group, but there was to be disappointment for the south-east Asians as the 2016 semi-finalists were eliminated by Uzbekistan.
There was no surprises as Japan and Iran shaded Uzbekistan and Iraq as all four progressed from their respective groups. Lebanon, meanwhile, were arguably the surprise packages. Despite having never reached a continental semi-final, Lebanon defeated 2015 semi-finalists Thailand 5-2 to top their group. The Cedars’ luck, however, ran out in the knockout stage with a heartbreaking 9-8 penalty shoot-out defeat against Iraq.
Japan eased past Iraq with a 3-0 scoreline in the first semi-final, while Iran crushed Uzbekistan 7-1. Despite the lop-sided scoreline in the final, it was Japan who had the better of early exchanges only for some profligacy in front of goal to prove costly.
The tournament’s best player Ali Hassanzadeh scored with just a minute remaining remaining of the half, before the Iranians finished in style by scoring a further three to wrap up their title defence.
“Yes, it was a little bit difficult at first in the game, but I was 100 per cent confident that we would pull through and score the goals we needed to win,” said IR Iran’s Alireza Rafieipor. “This victory is just the starting point for us. From now we are focused on 2020 [World Cup]. We are number three in the world and everyone is expecting us to get even better.”