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South Korea still perfect, Iraq, Iran draw

Left: South Korea’s defender Kim Jin-Su, ground, fights for the ball with China’s defender Jin Jingdao during the AFC Asian Cup Group C soccer match between South Korea and China at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on Jan 16. Right: A Chinese girl holds a China flag before the AFC Asian Cup Group C soccer match (AP)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan 16, (Agencies): Son Heung-min was just the player South Korea needed to really get their Asian Cup campaign going. In his first game since arriving from Tottenham, Son earned a penalty and then assisted on his team’s second goal to help South Korea beat China 2-0 in Group C on Wednesday.

With both teams already qualified, South Korea dominated possession and bombarded China’s goal in a more confident performance than its dour 1-0 wins over the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. Son won the penalty in the 12th minute, his fleet footwork proving too much for Shi Ke to keep up with as the Chinese defender tripped him.

Hwang Ui-jo took the penalty, shooting hard into the lower-left corner just past goalkeeper Yan Junling’s outstretched hand. South Korea scored again in the 51st when Son’s corner was headed in by Kim Min-jae. It was the defender’s second goal in as many games. Son is playing in his third international tournament in less than a year. After playing at the World Cup, Son missed the first part of the English season while playing for South Korea at the Asian Games. He led the team to the title, securing exemption from military service.

Son could be away for up to five of Tottenham’s matches in all competitions if South Korea reach the Asian Cup final on Feb 1. China face Thailand in the last 16, while South Korea’s opposition will be a third-place team yet to be determined. Kyrgyzstan earned their first ever Asian Cup win 3-1 over the Philippines to finish third in Group C, getting a hat trick from Vitalij Lux. Kyrgyzstan must wait for other results to find out if that’s enough for a place in the last 16.

Iran and Iraq played out a drab 0-0 draw which meant the Iranians finished top of Group D on goal difference. Iran appealed for a penalty when the ball hit Iraq midfielder Safaa Hadi’s arm just before halftime, but Hadi appeared to have tried to avoid contact and no spot kick was given. Iraq had some scoring chances in the second half but couldn’t end Iran’s 23-year unbeaten run in Asian Cup group games. Both Iran and Iraq have now qualified from the group stage at seven consecutive Asian Cups.

Iran are trying to win their fourth title after a 43-year wait, while Iraq won their only title in 2007. Iran now faces a second-round game against a thirdplace team from another group. Iraq must face either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, both among the tournament’s top scorers. Vietnam took third place in Group D after beating Yemen 2-0 for their first Asian Cup win in 12 years, and could qualify depending on other results.

Yemen were playing at their first Asian Cup despite a civil war and mass starvation at home. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament, Yemen failed to score a goal in its three group games and conceded 10. The global footballers’ union FIFPro has asked its members to help the Bahraini soccer player arrested in Thailand in November over a prison sentence in his homeland, saying it fears for his safety. Hakeem Al Araibi, who lives and plays in Australia, was arrested in November in Bangkok on an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

The Australian soccer players’ union has already asked the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to intervene to help secure his release from prison in Thailand. Araibi, who played for Bahrain’s national soccer team and was a critic of the government, had been convicted of vandalizing a police station and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. He denies wrongdoing. The Bahrain government says Araibi can appeal against the sentence if he returns to the kingdom. Araibi was granted asylum in Australia in 2017 after fleeing Bahrain three years earlier. FIFPro said it was calling on footballers “to help a fellow player”, detailing measures such as signing an Amnesty International petition. “The clock is ticking and we ask all footballers to do what they can to #SaveHakeem,” it said in a statement. “He must be allowed to return to Melbourne, where he is a player for Pascoe Vale FC, and be allowed to live in peace.”

It said Araibi travelled to Thailand with his wife to celebrate their honeymoon and was now “trapped in a crammed cell.” Araibi was a vocal critic of AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family and cousin of the king, when he contested the FIFA presidential election in 2015. FIFPro said it was “deeply concerned about his (Araibi’s) safety, and the manner in which Asian football authorities… have remained silent on the matter.”

Meanwhile, FIFA said it had been in regular contact with the AFC over the issue. FIFA has “been working behind the scenes and… been in regular contact with our national associations and with the AFC about this case,” a spokesman said late on Tuesday. Last week, the governing body said Araibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia to continue his career. The AFC has said it was working with groups including FIFA, but declined to comment further.

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