Tokyo, October 26, 2007: How significant was Urawa Reds’ win over Seongnam in their AFC Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night?
According to industry sources, it was one of the most important results in the last 15 years in terms of Asian football development.
There is no doubt that Japan drives Asian football, off the pitch in terms of sponsorship, marketing and television, and on the pitch with the J.League and the various national teams.
However, one thing has been missing since the Asian Football Confederation merged the old Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup (which was contested by the winners of the first two competitions) into the AFC Champions League in 2002. That, of course, was a successful Japanese club.
All that has changed now Reds have booked a place in the Champions League final against Sepahan of Iran, and the marketing men feel that this has raised the profile of the competition to a new level overnight.
“Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in 1992…the launch of the J.League in 1993…Japan’s victory over Iran in 1997 to qualify for the France World Cup…and now Urawa Reds reaching the final of the Champions League. That’s how significant this result is,” said Nick Mould, Hong Kong-based president of World Sport Group’s North Asia operations.
This conversation took place in Tokyo the evening after events at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when the formal proceedings finally ended at 10 minutes past 10.
The match had everything, didn’t it, and was played in a terrific spirit, despite the intense rivalry between the two countries and what was at stake.
When the match kicked off the atmosphere resembled a national team game, and my thoughts drifted back to 1997 and the World Cup qualifier between Japan and South Korea at National Stadium. At one point it looked like the result would be the same, too, as the Japanese squandered a one-goal lead and trailed 2-1.
On this occasion, though, Hasebe rescued Reds and the Japanese (and Brazilians, coached by Germans) came through in a penalty shootout.
Germans…a semi-final penalty shoot-out…how could Reds lose that one?