SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Gunfire sounded on the streets on Kabul in September but for once, there was plenty to be happy about as Afghanistan made headlines around the world by becoming the champion of South Asia. It was a rare feel-good story connected to the country and the most memorable event in another busy year for Asian football.
The result was not a shock, even if some headlines suggested so. Afghanistan reached the final in the 2011 edition of the biennial regional tournament, losing to India in Delhi. Revenge was sweet in September with a 2-0 win over the same team in Kathmandu. Tens of thousands of people celebrated in Kabul and the team was welcomed home by President Hamid Karzai.
"You can't imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team and me," said the victorious coach Yousef Kargar. "We have proved that we belong in the world of football. Our team has improved a lot over the last few years and I am sure we will get better in the years to come."
If the Lions of Khorasan can win the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament held for Asia's developing nations, then it will qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup to be held in Australia and possible games against continental giants such as Japan and South Korea.
"Afghanistan's success in South Asia has... served a caution to 2014 AFC Challenge Cup title aspirants. They have showed their mettle at the regional level and they would be one of the favorites in Maldives," said Asian Football Confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.
Salman made headlines in May as he won an overwhelming victory for the presidency of the AFC, easily defeating Yousef Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates and Thailand's Worawi Makudi. The Bahraini's ascension to Asia's top job ended almost two years of uncertainty after the suspension of Mohamed bin Hammam from the post in May 2011 for alleged vote-buying.
There have been other changes at the AFC. Backed by FIFA vice-president Ali Al Bin Hussein of Jordan, the Asian Champions League has been expanded. The number of nations with a chance of participating in the continent's premier club competition will increase from ten in 2013 to 19 next year, allowing countries such as Hong Kong, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to enter.
Jordan's national team came close to qualifying for the biggest prize of all -the 2014 World Cup — but lost an intercontinental playoff against Uruguay, beaten 5-0 at home in the first leg before a creditable scoreless draw away.
That defeat left Asia with four familiar teams going to Brazil. Japan was the most, perhaps only, impressive performer and clinched its spot with a 1-1 draw against Australia. That result was the Socceroos' best performance of an underwhelming campaign and they had to wait until the final whistle of the final game to be sure of automatic qualification.