The 2019 AFC Asian Cup – A Preview

by | Jan 5, 2019

Planet football may have more nations upon it than planet earth. But it is, as we know, all-too-often viewed through the prism of its “greatest league,” the English Premier League (EPL).

So, the finals tournament of football’s biggest international competition (in terms of the FOUR…AND…A…HALF…BILLION people represented) outside what we must apparently now call the Fifa World Cup has only so far edged into general football talk when an EPL player has to miss a few league games to participate in it. And as for TV coverage of it in the UK? Hahahahahaha…

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asia Cup is taking place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from 5th January to 1st February with games in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Sharjah. But if EPL fans have heard of it at all, it may be because it means South Korean striker Son Heung-Min will miss a few Tottenham games. And only then because Sky commentator on the Cardiff/Spurs game on New Year’s Day, Bill Leslie, made patronising-as-f**k mention of Son’s availability for Spurs against the new Man Yoo as South Korea don’t need him for their games against Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines.

This, in turn, led to what may have been news even to some Cardiff fans, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s place in the Philippines squad. “Good old Sven,” Leslie noted, answering those who may still be wondering “WTF is Sven-Goran Eriksson doing these days?” Although Etheridge’s ‘special dispensation’ to NOT be in the squad was announced by Philippines federation president Mariano Araneta, who “knew the importance of Neil with Cardiff City.”

Indeed, the Asia Cup probably only entered domestic psyches after news that Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic would miss Scotland’s only club game because of Australia’s pre-tournament training camp. (that Hibernian were without their Oz trio, Martin Boyle, Mark Milligan and Jamie Maclaren for their 1-0 Edinburgh derby loss to Hearts made fewer headlines, of course). And, after Celtic’s remaining midfield stumbled around Ibrox, news that Rogic wasn’t even on the bench for the Socceroos’ friendly against Oman last Sunday went down not-so-well; immediate revenue projections for any Walkabouts in Glasgow’s East End may need lowering.

In response, rent-a-gobshite pundit Chris Sutton expressed his surely well-researched opinion of the Cup (“Mickey Mouse football”). “The Chelsea flop,” Fox Sports Asia called him, with undisguised contempt. Sutton may be right that Australia “don’t need Tom Rogic to thump Jordan.” But I’m guessing he could name less-than-one Jordanian player. “Stick to your prawns and your barbecues,” he concluded, dabbling in casual racism. “F**k off, Sutton,” concluded Asia. Correctly.

However, like their African counterparts, Asian nations haven’t quite made the global breakthrough football globalists have long hoped for. South Korea impressed in 2002’s World Cup. But they took full advantage of home advantage (and some ultra-generous officiating against Spain) en route to narrow semi-final defeat against Germany and third-place play-off defeat to Turkey. And Asian victories in World Cup finals matches are still occasional.

In 2018, the five Asian teams won only four matches with only Japan qualifying from the groups…and that only on the fair play rule…although Iran were famously the width of a side-netting from sending ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal’ home early and were arguably the most impressive Asian side in Russia.

And the AFC themselves hardly helped the cause. It was a long way to the UAE. In 2014, without irony, the AFC simultaneously lightened the international fixture load by combining 2019 Asia Cup qualifiers with 2018 World Cup qualifiers and approved the design of their competitions committee (chair: Franz Kafka, having a dizzy spell) for an Asia Cup qualifying tournament which took three years to reduce 46 entrants to 24 finalists…up from 16 in 2015. Three years.

Final World Cup group positions determined whether nations entered Asia Cup qualifying in the first round (ten teams, five matches, with Bhutan joining the five losers in a second round) or the qualifying third round groups (24 teams, six groups of four)…or…or…went straight into the finals. I think. Then take away the first number you thought of. Three years.

However, all that convolution provided a fascinating finals’ line-up, albeit as many geopolitical as football reasons. The group stage features Syria/Palestine, Palestine/Jordan (the PLO derby?), Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran/Iraq (a repeat of a classic 2015 quarter-final). Football’s “biggest emerging market,” India kept Gianni Infantino’s ‘new’ Fifa financially happy by qualifying right from the very first round, after seven defeats in eight World Cup qualifiers. And despite, well, EVERYTHING, Yemen qualified. Also right from the very first round.

On the downside, misery-guts AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa’s Bahrain team will be there, the opportunity to tie their continuing involvement to the release from on-and-on-going detention in Thailand, at Bahrain’s request, of Australian-domiciled refugee Hakeem Al-Araibi  being wilfully passed up by those empowered to take it. Which means that, like Chris Sutton, Thailand can f**k off, too. As, for journalist-killing and high-fiving-with-Putin reasons, can Saudi Arabia.

Australia are defending champions, having won as hosts four years ago (40 DAYS before 2019’s qualifiers began; on tour forever, these Asian national teams). And the UAE could provide a repeat host-nation triumph, as one of a number of realistic contenders. They provided one of the stars of 2015, Omar Abdulrahman, a midfield play-maker with a Stylistics haircut and disco-dancing feet. However, Abdulrahman is out injured this time around, which is therefore a shame on three different levels, outwith the UAE’s tournament prospects.

All the traditional Asian powerhouses are present, the most notable absentee perhaps being Kuwait, who reached the third qualifying round (which, I think, was quite deep into the qualifying competition) but whose FA fell foul of Fifa regulations (and, arguably, internal politics…long story…won’t bore you with it here) and has been suspended since October 2015.

Japan are most bookies’ favourites, undoubtedly but not unreasonably informed by the fact that they really, REALLY should have beaten Belgium in the World Cup, as well as having won three of the last five Asia Cups. South Korea and Iran are also short odds, with one bookie (whose name I won’t mention because that would be unfair on…no…NO) quoting the pair at 4/1, behind favourites Japan at…er…9/2. No, me neither.

Despite their lengthy preparations, Australia are slightly longer odds, bereft as they are for the first time in about 94 years, of talisman Tim Cahill, which is far from universally considered a ‘bad thing’ in Australia. And only the hosts, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are given any real chance at all by the turf accountants, who don’t value home advantage as highly as history suggests they should.

Fifa’s own rankings…sorry…the ‘Fifa/Coca-Cola world rankings’ should be more credible than the bookies but… Anyway, Iran are currently top-ranked at 29, followed by Australia, Japan and South Korea in that order, with Yemen the lowest-ranked.

And much of the tournament’s fascination will be derived from the bookies (and Coca-Cola’s) non-favourites. Qatar showed genuine signs of footballing credibility in winning their *checks notes* third round qualifying group ahead of China, with seven wins out of eight. Beating Bhutan 15-0 may be less eye-catching the more you examine it. But a November 1-0 friendly win AWAY to Switzerland wasn’t too shabby.

Jordan have survived unspeakable football horrors in qualification. Well, one, anyway, with one Henry James Redknapp (oh yes) among the six (count ‘em) coaches they have eaten their way through since 2015 (Redknapp “lasted in the ‘jungle’ longer than he did as manager,” Fox Sports Asia’s Akshat Mehrish wrote in a tournament preview last week). Former Belgian international Vital Borkelmans is the marvellously-named current incumbent (or was when I typed this), a name which in and of itself should garner considerable neutral support.

However, my favourites are Sven’s Philippines. They may have hired Terry Butcher as a predecessor boss but he quit before he could do damage in anything so key as a match. Their captain is the marvellously-named Phil Younghusband. Their goalie is now the marvellously-named Michael Falkesgaard. And among their squad are the marvellously-named Stephan Shrock and John-Patrick Strauss. Now I know that in some languages ‘Harry Redknapp’ might be deemed ‘marvellously-named.’ But, seriously. Younghusband, Shrock and John-Patrick Strauss? What is not to love, deeply?

Without Chris Sutton’s in-depth Asian football knowledge and razor-sharp analytical powers, it is difficult to predict who might emerge as star players (apart from Hibs’ trio, natch), partly because some of the best players in the qualifiers, including Cahill and Japan’s Keisuke Honda, internationally retired either during its, remember, THREE years or after the World Cup.

Rogic better BE a star, the time he’s spent away. Son Heung-Min will be a star because, as Cardiff City most recently discovered, he IS a star. Jordan’s goalkeeper Amer Shafi has half-a-million caps, scored the only goal in Jordan’s 1-0 friendly win against India in November and thus looks set to fill the semi-comedy keeper role played by Paraguay’s Jose Louis Chilavert and Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary in recent international tournaments.

India’s Sunil Chhetri is the second-highest international scorer currently playing, 21 goals behind preening Portuguese pr*ck Cristiano bloody Ronaldo. Iran’s Sardar Azmoun DID retire after the World Cup, at 23, citing fan abuse, but unsurprisingly unretired last October and has ample European club competition experience with Rubin Kazan. And if Vietnam’s Nguyen Quang Hai is widely-tipped as a breakout hit.

The managerial/head coach line-up is more globally familiar, with a disappointing emphasis on veteran former European league supremos such as Eriksson, with 15 of the 24 coaches European-born, if you still consider England ‘European’ (former Nepal, Sudan, Malawi, Rwanda and, briefly, Millwall (!) coach Stephen Constantine is in his second spell with India).

The very veteran 70-year-old Italian Marcello Lippi is in charge of China, suitably the most ‘veteran’ squad in the tournament, although at least Lippi has coached in China’s Super League (CSL) and five of his squad play for his former club Guangzhou Evergrande. Lippi’s one-time Serie A colleague, Uruguayan Hector Cuper, became Uzbekistan boss after coaching the injury-troubled 2018 World Cup campaign of “Mo Salah’s Egypt.”

Fellow Serie A veteran and former Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is UAE boss. The much-travelled Portuguese Carlos Quieroz has been Iran chief forever, in international football terms (the best part of eight years). Yemen, Syria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Korea, Qatar, Thailand, Lebanon and Oman are also under various forms of European control. While Bahrain are coached by Czech Miroslav Soukup, whose name you can pronounce ‘Suck-up’ for childishly comedic purposes.

Twohundredpercent will bore you rigid keep you up-to-date with Emirati events. BBC Sport apparently have the UK broadcast rights in the UK but, at the time of typing, don’t appear to be broadcasting anything. Eurosport have the European broadcast rights. However, the UK is ALREADY not in that ‘Europe.’ But I’ll keep you posted. Somehow.