A Malaysian state club emerged as the unlikely 2015 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup champion in a riveting final match on October 31 against a fancied side from Tajiskistan, a Central Asian republic.
Through a goal in the 23rd minute by Leandro Sebastian Velasquez off a corner kick, the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) Football Club beat the favorite Istiklol FC of Tajikistan in a night-time game at Pamir Stadium in the republic’s capital of Dushanbe, becoming the first team from Southeast Asia to win the title since the tournament’s inception in 2004.
The AFC Cup is the top competition for football clubs in the whole of Asia and regarded as next to the Asian Cup in terms of regional prestige.
The breakthrough triumph of the Malaysian side broke the grip of teams from the Middle East and Uzbekistan on the tournament and, in recent seasons, that of Kuwaiti clubs.
JDT’s victory might soften the blow suffered recently by the Malaysian national football team in its horrible 10-0 loss to the United Arab Emirates in a qualifier for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
That result so infuriated Malaysian fans that they forced local football authorities to stop the next qualifying match against Saudi Arabia by throwing flares around a Kuala Lumpur stadium where the home game was played in September.
Saudi Arabia was leading 2-1 when the match was officially suspended.
In the AFC Cup final last Saturday in the sold-out Pamir Stadium, Istiklol looked like the stronger side in the first half of the match until Leandro—as fans reportedly call him—sneaked one past Tajik goalkeeper Nikola Stosic.
In the initial 45 minutes of play, the home side threatened early, in the 14th minute, but the attempt was ruled offside (made from a position where one may not play the ball).
Two more shots at goal in the 52nd and 90th minute proved heartbreakers for stunned fans of Istiklol as the attempts were also ruled offside by Japanese referee Minoru Tojo.
The five-foot-five, 26 year-old Velasquez is from Argentina and is listed as a midfielder in his FIFA profile.
According to Bob Guerrero, Filipino football commentator who annotated a replay of the JDT-Istiklol clash over Channel 23 on November 4, football clubs in the AFC Cup are each allowed to field four foreign players but with one of them having to be from Asia.
Istiklol tried but in vain for an equalizer in six minutes of added time in the second half, ending its first-ever quest for the crown.
In next year’s edition of the AFC Cup, the Philippines will be represented not by just one but two teams—Ceres and Kaya, standouts in the domestic United Football League (UFL).
This year, the country was bannered by Global, another top UFL eleven that made it to the group stages.
Global was the first Philippine club to qualify for the AFC Cup.