With all the personal arrogance and Euro-centricity he could muster, which is quite a lot, all told, Alex Ferguson dismissed the leading international football tournament of the world’s most populous continent in those four words. But the tournament which started in Qatar on Friday is rather more important than that. To the players and teams involved, of course. And to the world of football as a whole, because it started in Qatar, whose World Cup 2022 success has certainly been deemed ‘important’ by some.
At first glance, the “Asian Cup”, to give it the correct title, sounds like one of those pre-season tournaments which give Manchester United’s multi-million fan base a chance to see their heroes in late July/early August. Such competitions have been going a while, long before the Premier League and its belief in the need to boost the “EPL” brand around the old and supposed third world. My old school bag had “Spurs – League Cup Winners 1973” emblazoned on it, to which I added in blue (somehow rainproof) biro, “Japan Cup winners 1976.” But the “Asian Cup” isn’t Hull City v. a Hong Kong select XI on Sky Sports 64 at nine o’clock in the morning. It is, to repeat, the leading international football tournament of the world’s most populous continent. And for Ferguson to bemoan its very existence because he’ll have to do without Park Ji-Sung for seven weeks, about four matches at current selection rates, is plain wrong.
This year’s Asian Cup has only been of interest in this country in as far as it has “deprived” Premier League clubs of supposedly key players, not unlike the African Cup of Nations (ACN) a few years back. Managers’ complaints about the ACN have died down, though not quite died out, in the face of evidence of the strong nationalist feeling amongst African international players, and the undeniable quality of some of the recent tournaments. Neither circumstance has arisen with regard to Asian players.
A cursory glance at the FIFA rankings shows that the Asian Cup lags behind the ACN in quality – as does a cursory count of the far-more-important measure, the number of Premier League players taking part. So the supposed causes for complaint are fewer. And it “only” takes place every four years, and four years ago there were simply not that many Asian players established as regular Premier League stars.
The planned TV coverage in Britain reflected the Asian Cup’s ‘lower’ status, with the tournament seemingly reduced to a space-filler even in a British Eurosport schedule with such sporting delights as ‘Freeride Spirit Show.’ But even this coverage has this far proved a movable feast. Highlights of the opening game were put back to accommodate the afore-mentioned ‘Freeride Spirit Show,’ – what appeared to be an intimate video diary of some French people jumping down a snowy mountainside before getting ready for bed (no, really). And the Sunday night highlights programme disappeared altogether as two snooker players of no fixed personality dragged their unwatchable match into the small hours and beyond (now I know how non-cricket fans feel watching test matches).
That said, Eurosport and Eurosport 2 deserve plaudits for providing any coverage at all. The channels are hamstrung by the financial necessity to have their commentary “position” somewhere closer to Greenwich than the Gulf. And the highlights packages provided by host broadcaster ESPN Star appear to have been edited purely at random – a key moment of the opening game was nearly missed entirely. But there’s hours of coverage and the commentators and analysts appear to have done their research, which, after the shambolic broadcast journalism to which we were treated by the more ‘mainstream’ broadcasters in South Africa last summer, is a breath of fresh air.
Former Ipswich and England defender Russell Osman has, thus far, been particularly impressive – with a wholly unexpected knowledge of Indian domestic football (the ‘I’ League) a consequence of his work as an analyst for an unspecified broadcaster covering Indian “league and cup” games. Not surprisingly, the tournament favourites are the continent’s qualifiers for last year’s World Cup – Japan, the Koreas and the “new” Asians from Australia – the Aussies apparently searching for a bit of national sporting pride for some reason, so I’m told.
Whether the sixteen teams taking part are Asia’s current top sixteen isn’t entirely clear, as qualification was a more complex process than a straightforward “hosts + group and play-off winners” system which has served Europe for so long. The top three from four years ago – Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea – qualified for this tournament as of right, regardless of their inter-tournament fortunes, which have been variable. India and North Korea made it by winning the last two ‘AFC Challenge Cup’ tournaments for the continent’s ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’ nations. North Korea are one of the continent’s top 16 and they were in the 2010 Challenge Cup despite also qualifying for the World Cup finals. India are another matter entirely. They qualified by winning the 2008 Challenge Cup, so have effectively taken their place on the basis of victory in a lesser competition…thirty months ago.
Meanwhile, Qatar wouldn’t be anywhere near the last sixteen but for being hosts, despite a FIFA ranking of 114 that sneaks them in as Asia’s 16th best and suggests a level of competence not evident in the tournament opener. The Qatari team were a Eurocentric’s, and Aussies’, delight, living down to the hopes and dreams of anyone with any bitterness about the success of their 2022 World Cup bid (“useless and full of imported ringers”, noted Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail, correctly). Buoyed by pre-tournament wins over Egypt and Estonia after a largely ghastly run of form in 2010, Qatar came unstuck when they discovered that their opponents in the opening game, Uzbekistan, didn’t begin with ‘E’ in any language.
The Uzbeks broke into a trot approximately seven times in the ninety minutes. But that was seven times enough to win the game, although it wasn’t quite enough to justify Osman’s pre-match comment: “I like the way Uzbekistan play their football.” Not something you would have imagined him saying to Terry Butcher as the pair clogged their way to European success with Ipswich all those years ago. Aside from an Andrew Johnson tribute act playing, and falling over, just behind the Uzbek’s front… er… one, the highlight was their genuinely terrific opening goal.
Osman was, not unreasonably, bemoaning their near-allergy to putting the ball into the box, when they set up Odil Akhmedov for a 30-yard drive which would have beaten a good keeper all ends up, let alone Qatar’s hapless Qasem Burhan. “He’s got a reputation for spectacular international goals,” noted commentator Tim Caple. It’s deserved. “Qatar is a work in progress,” concluded Russell Osman as the Qatari’s pain came to an end in front of a fast-dwindling home support. Both the understatement and the goal of the tournament awards wrapped up in game one.
The fastest managerial sacking award has already been snapped up by Saudi Arabia, coach Jose Peseiro receiving the Saudi equivalent of a P45 after his team failed to turn Barcelona possession rates into even one point, losing 2-1 to the self-styled Syrian Arab Republic (Syria to its mates). “I blame the players,” said a seemingly confused Saudi FA president, announcing Peseiro’s “release.” Japan were seconds away from a “Spain v Switzerland” moment, equalising in the 92nd minute against a defensively resolute Jordan, and damn nearly winning the game in the remaining two minutes of stoppage time.
Australia’s facile 4-0 win over India taught us little about the ‘Socceroos’, except that Tim Cahill’s middle name is ‘Filiga’ (no Blackburn Rovers shirts immediately obvious from the TV shots of India’s noisily enthusiastic support, but, hey, its early days yet). While South Korea were neat and tidy. Certainly neater and tidier than their first goal, a mishit shot leading to a deflected shot. But whether this neatness and tidiness stretched to Bolton midfielder Lee Chung-Yong’s description of their playing style as “kaleidoscopic” is up for lengthy debate. The tournament is in its earliest days, though. And whilst things have perked up after the ghastly-and-a-half opening game, they won’t hot up until today’s (Tuesday’s) Group D fixtures. North Korea make their debut against the United Arab Emirates, with Iraq playing, ulp, Iran in the other fixture. North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Now. that’s a ‘Death.’
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