The Asian Cup featured stars both on and off the field, with passionate, loud, musical, and most importantly, smiling crowds.
Here are 12 of the best fan moments that made the event magical:
1. The dancing Kuwaitis
Hope is in the air. The first game of the tournament is a sellout between Australia and Kuwait at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. Outside the stadium, the precinct is flooded with yellow.
No exotic entertainment, no sign yet of Asia.
Then up step four Kuwaitis with a mini stereo, dressed in boots, scarves and roomy traditional clothing.
No permits, no questions and hopefully no forgiveness required. The music went on, the lads danced in jumping, circular, joyous fashion to a cheering crowd.
After two songs, they grabbed their stereo and blended back into the sea of yellow. With the unofficial community opening ceremony complete, Asia had officially landed.
2. The power and the passion of Team Melli fans
Pre-tournament, many critics said nobody would turn up for the Asian Cup Games in which the Socceroos weren’t playing. How wrong they were.
For every event that aspires to be great, the tone of excellence is set early and the momentum built upon.
For the AFC Asian Cup it was the Iranians who set the early pace and due to visa restrictions they had no inbound tourist fans to supplement local fans.
In Melbourne 17,000 screaming fans turned out against Bahrain. Disciplined and loud, with great song variety, they were marshalled by chant-leading ‘capos’ in fluoro orange.
Some said the Iranian 17,000 were louder than the Melbourne A-League derby.
The real story was the passion of the hordes of vivacious Iranian female fans who came out in full bloom, thumbing their nose at the Tehran regime who enforce a ban on women attending football in Iran.
After the Melbourne game the Iranian community danced outside the stadium until 1.30am.
After friendly taunts on Facebook the next Iranian game in Sydney had a crowd of almost 23,000 chanting fans. Coach Carlos Queiroz called Stadium Australia “Little Azadi” referring to the 120,000 Azadi stadium in Tehran.
Iran also won the best fan banner of the tournament.
In the quarter final in Canberra, the locals had never heard a roar like it when Reza Goochannejhad scored the equaliser to go 3-3 against Iraq.
Two wonderful Iranian fan stories were published by Joe Gorman in the Guardian and Dom Bossi in the Sydney Morning Herald that captured the mood beautifully.
They sang, they danced, they laughed and they cried.
Salut the joyous fans of Team Melli.
3. Dai the diplomat
The Samurai Blue fans were left disappointed with their early exit but they turned out in big numbers for a 25,000 sellout in Melbourne, 17,000 in Newcastle and almost 23,000 in Brisbane.
Their fans were loud and their chanting relentless.
Japanese Asian Cup Community Ambassador Dai “Sorry” Maeyama was responsible for some of the great fan moments of the Cup.
Dai became a cult hero among the community ambassadors and became legendary for his knowledge and enthusiasm.
First in Cessnock he interviewed FoxSports commentator Adam Peacock.
A few days later, before the Japan v Palestine game, he was at Fort Scratchley in Newcastle for a goodwill ceremony to remember Japanese submarines shelling Newcastle in World War Two.
Dai Maeyama fired the cannon and engaged with the Diggers in a truly wonderful moment.
His interview with Tara Rushton was also Asian-Australian cross cultural gold.
4. The gallant Uzbek 300
Uzbekistan’s Australian community is small in numbers but big in heart and its rhythmic drumming and funky headwear brought the Silk Road to our stadiums.
Their food and hospitality was wonderful, Uzbek smiles lit up the stadiums and their multicultural team of Russians and Uzbeks played entertaining football.
The White Wolves were shrouded in mystery early in the tournament, holding secret training sessions and keeping to themselves.
Martin Flanagan wrote a wonderful piece on visiting Shahin and Alisher, two of the Uzbekistan Asian Cup Community Ambassadors at their Dandenong Resturant.
His follow up piece on the gallant Uzbek 300 also captured the full flavor of the Uzbek fan passion.
5. Dual identity fans
With 47% of Australians having one or more parent born overseas, many new migrants wrestle with the issue of dual identity.
In the Asian Cup, many fans showed they were proud of their dual identity, screaming both for the Socceroos and their ancestral country with equal fervour.
It was a high water mark for multiculturalism and many said they’d never felt more Australian. Nation building at its finest.
6. Iraqi fans – the 12th man
The Iraqi fans brought a new layer of passion to the Asian Cup. They sang outside the team hotel, they danced on the streets and outside and inside stadiums.
There is a lot at stake when Iraq plays and for the many tribes of Iraq supporting Iraqi football is a life and death roller coaster.
The Lions of Mesopotamia received tremendous love from their Australian communities including a beautiful fan day in Brisbane.
Whenever the Iraq team and their fans came together special moments occurred, both off and on the field.
FoxSports story on the Iraq fans who travelled to Brisbane showed men who oozed excitement for Iraq and were proudly Australian.
In the stadium in Canberra they sang louder and louder with each goal. “Hassa Yejee Al Awel – now the first goal will come.” “Hassa Yejee Thanee – now the second goal will come.”
After the win against Iraq in Canberra they danced in the stadium.
After dancing in Canberra and fuelled on coffee, they drove three hours back to Fairfield and danced until 5am.
In Iraq the fans celebrated as if they had won the Asian Cup.
Iraqi football fans, thank you for sharing another wild ride.
7. North Korean fans – generals, hipsters and cheapskates
With only 39 North Korean residents officially in Australia, supporters for the team would have to come from other areas.
Joe Gorman’s brilliant story on the North Korean fans summarised them perfectly:
“To fill the void, the North Koreans are being supported at the Asian Cup by a motley crew of inner-city hipsters looking for an appropriately ironic team to follow, whack-job communists still raging against the dying light of Marxism-Leninism, cheapskates taking advantage of the cut-price tickets (and I mean cut-price – you can get into North Korean group matches for a tenner), and, most curiously of all, the South Korean reunificationists.”
In Canberra after China had beaten North Korea 2-1, I arrived at the bar to find Kim Jong-un’s three generals in full kit celebrating and shouting “We won 25-0, front page Pyongyang Daily.”
8. The Red Army rises again
China went from regional easy beats to well-oiled machine, winning all three group games and going down gallantly to the Socceroos. Their fans responded with big crowds including a sellout in Canberra.
The sleeping dragon had awoken.
At every China game there was love in the air with mass fan drum chants, one marriage proposal in the stadium (spoiler – she said yes!) and everyone danced from grandmas to small babies.
In every stadium when the Chinese had their backs to the wall the crowd would sing a Chinese kindergarten song “Ge Song Zung Go” or “I am proud for the Communist motherland”.
In Canberra, emboldened by their undefeated run, the crowd chanted an NRL style “Bullshit, bullshit” at one dubious refereeing decision.
Before the Brisbane quarter final between Australia and China I asked community ambassador Michael Ma who he was going for.
He smiled and said: “That’s easy – both! Double happiness for me.”
9. Red Devils and drummers
The South Korean fans came out in numbers for every game and were rallied outside and inside stadiums by the magnificent Korean drumming women.
They kept a steady beat, leading the crowd chants and having a swell time.
After games the Korean fans cleaned the grandstands completely and left.
If Stadium Australia had a roof it would have popped for South Korea’s first goal against Iraq in the semi final.
Before the final, if there were any nerves in the Korean community it didn’t show.
Cool, calm and collected their fans showed great honour in defeat.
10. The musicians
All manner of approved and unapproved instruments came into stadiums as fans celebrated their culture. From the rhythmic central Asian drum beats of the Uzbek fans to the middle eastern hand drums of the Iraqi fans; from the South Korean spoon master and drumming women, to the Palestinian fiddler, or the pounding Japanese Taiko drums, it was a veritable feast of Asian music.
A bow to all of the musicians who made the Asian Cup a rich reminder of the wonderful diversity of our region.
11. The 90-minute Dabke
For the entire duration of every game Palestine played, their fans did the Dabke dance from start to finish – a celebration that, while in the eyes of the international community they may not formally be a nation, within football tournaments for an hour and a half, they are.
Every second mattered and for a small community they had a big turnout of fans who had waited 87 years for this moment.
They won hearts in Newcastle and their experience was captured beautifully by Tim Connell in a story in the Newcastle Herald and another by Niko Leka on the Palestinian journey and concept of “sammoud”.
By the time the Palestine team reached Melbourne their fans were fever pitch.
The Palestinian fan experience in Melbourne was captured by Joe Gorman’s excellent Guardian story in which Mohammad, a fan was quoted as saying: “Support is awareness. If I was a player who came here from a war zone and saw the thousands of people who will be dressed in Palestinian colours, that’s more of a victory than actually winning a game.”
12. UAE crying fan
If there was one moment that encapsulated the passion of the Asian Cup it was the UAE fan that broke down during penalties against Japan.
The pressure had broken him and with teary eyes he prayed for his team. When Khamis “the Rock” Esmail missed the penalty he fell over distraught and had to be helped up.
He had composed himself before the final penalty by big man Ismail Ahmed and went on to celebrate a great victory.
Beamed to millions across Asia he showed what the Asian Cup means.