Tadanari Lee scored an extra-time winner as Japan edged Australia 1-0 to win a pulsating Asian Cup final and become the most successful team in the competition’s history.
The unmarked substitute sent a stunning left-foot volley past the diving Mark Schwarzer in the 109th minute to hand his country their fourth title at the continental showcase, a feat no-one else has achieved.
The win, following their successes in 1992, 2000 and 2004, carried the added bonus of an automatic place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil - the traditional World Cup warm-up tournament.
It followed a deadlocked match at 90 minutes that sent the game into extra-time, with penalties looking likely until Lee worked his magic to shatter Australia’s dream of their first-ever silverware.
“It is a great victory. We have a really great team. They were united and won the title against such strong opponents,” said Japan’s Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who singled out Lee for praise.
“I knew he would do it. What is great about this team is that players, who started on the bench, could produce results on the pitch.”
Australia’s German coach Holger Osieck was proud of his players, despite the agonising defeat.
“You can imagine how disappointed we are to come second because we had our opportunities. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convert them,” he said.
“But I’m very proud of the players, their performance and their attitude over the tournament, I’m full of credit. I feel very sorry for the boys that they didn’t get the reward for their efforts.”
Both teams had scored 13 times before the final and Australia looked most likely to add to that.
Harry Kewell had the first shot on target in the opening minute, an ambitious long-range drive that didn’t trouble Eiji Kawashima.
Schwarzer, who surpassed Alex Tobin to set a new record for the most capped Socceroo ever on his 88th appearance, also found himself in action at the other end.
The 38-year-old, though, had Keisuke Honda’s half-chance easily covered.
Australia were stronger with Japan missing the spark of Shinji Kagawa, who broke a bone in his foot in their penalty shoot-out win over South Korea in the last four.
They should have gone ahead on 15 minutes when Brett Holman whipped a low cross into the area but the stretching Carl Valeri failed to connect.
In a dangerous period for Japan, Tim Cahill’s header forced a desperate one-handed save from Kawashima moments later as the Socceroos upped the ante.
Osieck’s side had only conceded one goal before the final and Japan were struggling to penetrate their defence, working hard to build attacks only to see them break down too easily.
As they did in the first half, Australia came out after the break with real verve and almost took the lead on 49 minutes when Luke Wilkshire’s cross hit the bar and Cahill tried to bundle in the rebound.
Australia claimed a goal but it was not given and replays showed the ball did not cross the line.
Japan also had their chances, with Yuto Nagamoto turning Wilkshire inside-out and delivering a perfect cross to Shinji Okazaki, whose header skimmed just past the post.
It was anyone’s game, and Kewell should have done better on 71 minutes when he had just the keeper to beat, but Kawashima stuck out his right boot to save a certain goal.
Fatigue crept in as the game stretched to extra-time and Kewell was replaced by Robbie Kruse, who almost made a dream start with Kawashima tipping his header onto the bar.
But it was Lee who ultimately stole the glory, with the dangerous Nagamoto finding him unmarked at the back post and the 25-year-old cleanly hitting his volley for his first international goal.
“I kept talking to myself, saying ‘I’ll be a hero. I’ll be a hero’ before I went onto the pitch,” said Lee.
“I could score a goal in the end and I’m really happy.”