As soon as the ball left Sunil Chhetri’s boot and arrowed past a stock-still Jung Sung-ryong, an inveterate destiny had been secured, Korea had been unwittingly condemned into a fifth replay of arguably one of the greatest Asian Cup rivalries to date. One could almost hear the collective groans in Tehran and Seoul as, having played against each other in the last four consecutive Asian Cups at the very same quarter-final stage both teams unbelievably find themselves face to face yet again, as if by some conspiratorial sorcery by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
If such fanciful superstitions are really to be believed however, then Iran will have already won this year’s quarter-final match-up but will be fated to lose in the next match; amazingly, Iran’s and Korea’s victories have perfectly alternated with one another during each Asian Cup dating back to 1996 only to have the winner being dumped out at the semi-final stage.
One of Korea’s many penalty shoot-outs in the 2007 Asian Cup
In the last edition, cast in the dour humidity of a Malaysian July, it was Korea who found themselves as somewhat surprising, if awkward, victors, triumphing over Iran 4-2 in the penalty shoot-out despite nearly finding themselves at the cusp of elimination after some insipid performances during the group stage. Pim Verbeek’s men met their end soon after though at the hands of the darlings of the 2007 edition, Iraq, but found some solace in beating arch-rivals Japan to clinch third place and an automatic qualification for this year’s tournament, again on penalty kicks, with Lee Woon-jae reveling in the heroics. Three years prior, it was ex-Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi who was very much the star on show as his veritable one-man performance, an impressive hat-trick aided by Park Jin-seop’s own-goal, condemned Ahn Jung-Hwan and Co. to a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat in Jinan. The ‘Wizard of Tehran’ could not repeat the remarkable feat against an obdurate side backed by tens of thousands of supporters and Iran fell to the wayside in a closely contested penalty shootout with hosts China. Four years before that, the first Asian Cup of the new millennium saw a thrilling golden goal win for Korea in Lebanon with Kim Sang-sik’s effort, almost exactly on ninety minutes, cancelling out Karim Bagheri’s 71st minute screamer. Lee Dong-guk, then a sprightly 21-year old at Werder Bremen on loan from Pohang, found the inspiration to cap off a wonderful 99th minute goal initiated by a trademark Hong Myung-bo foray from defense. Any further Korean jubilation was quickly abbreviated by Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win in the semi-finals. While all of the subsequent Korea-Iran Asian Cup duels have been tight-knit affairs, the first matchup, circa 1996, saw Korea limp out of the group stage as one of the best third placed qualifiers only to be hammered 6-2 by Iran; the legendary Ali Daei claiming a four goal haul in that match to be hero for the Persians but consequently playing the villain in the next match as he botched his penalty in the shoot-out with Saudi Arabia.
Late goals feature in the 2-1 thriller in the 2000 Asian Cup
This year’s match, on paper, appears to be in the vein of another edgy event. For all the laudatory remarks and praise bestowed upon Cho’s new Iberian-inspired attacking verve, Korea remains defensively suspect, having conceded one goal in every match of the group stage. A relatively comfortable sixty minutes against Bahrain quickly turned to a worrisome thirty when center-back Kwak Tae-hwi was adjudged to have fouled Abdulla Al Dakeel in the penalty area resulting in a sending-off and a penalty to Bahrain. Kwak would later again be culpable for conceding in his first game back from suspension, fouling the aforementioned Chhetri, who converted his penalty to the elation of thousands of Indian fans in attendance. And while Korea offensively have been impressive, stringing ‘n’ combinations of varied passes and cutting through Bahraini, Australian, and Indian defensive lines with no shortage of footballing style and panache, against Afshin Ghotbi’s gritty Iran, a glitzy Korean midfield encounters a much more difficult prospect in answering the physical challenge of the indefatigable Andranik Teymourian and mercurial Mohammad-Reza Khalatbari. And although recent signs point to a match guaranteed to be littered with fouls and glit-edged chances, as previous encounters have shown, there is no guarantee as to what to expect come game time between two of Asia’s indisputable heavyweights.