By Andrew Misra
The Asian Cup rolls around this January and it’s something that, generally speaking, we know very little about in the UK. As with the Africa Cup of Nations, we’ve only really become aware of it due to the competition depriving us of high-profile players from the Premier League for about a month.
We can trace that back to Didier Drogba and the mid-noughties generation of Ivorian players in the English top flight. It’s no coincidence then that the greater number of Asian players in the Premier League these days, most notably Son Heung-Min at Tottenham Hotspur, has thrown more spotlight on the Asian Cup this year than was previously the case.
So what exactly is the competition?
The Facts and History
The Asian Cup is a competition organised by the Asian Football Confederation. The aim? Simple. To crown the best international team in Asia.
To understand how the Asian Cup fits into the international football jigsaw, it’s helpful to start from a broad perspective. Fédération Internationale de Football Association, known in common parlance as FIFA, is the overall governing body of recognised international football.
Under the umbrella of FIFA, there are six continental confederations, which organise both club and international competitions at the continental scale. Some of these are more recognisable than others.
Alongside the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), there is also:
- Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) for Africa. The Africa Cup of Nations is the main international competition.
- Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) for North and Central America. The Gold Cup is the main international competition.
- Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL) for South America. The Copa America is the main international competition.
- Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) for Oceania. The OFC Nations Cup is the main international competition. Unsurprisingly this is dominated historically by Australia and New Zealand. Australia left the OFC to join the AFC in 2007.
- Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) for Europe. The UEFA European Championship is the main international competition.
Let’s get back to Asia. This will be the 17th edition of the Asian Cup. It’s being held in the United Arab Emirates from 5th January to 1st February 2019.
It’s not the first time that the UAE has hosted the Asian Cup – they did so back in 1996. The competition is quadrennial – meaning it is held every four years.
The inaugural edition of the tournament was held in Hong Kong in 1956. The four-year cycle continued unbroken up to the 2004 event in China.
However, with that four-year cycle coinciding with the Summer Olympic Games and the European Football Championships, the sensible decision to change the Asian Cup cycle was made. The next event was held a year earlier than would be traditionally scheduled, in 2007, where it was co-hosted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Iraq emerged victorious on that occasion.
Japan won the 2011 event in Qatar, while Australia won as hosts last time out in 2015 after joining the confederation in 2007.
The most successful teams and the four teams to have won the event multiple times are Japan (4), Saudi Arabia (3), Iran (3) and South Korea (2). Indeed, Japan and Saudi Arabia have won seven of the last nine finals.
Other past winners alongside Australia and Iraq are Kuwait (1980) and Israel (1964). The latter, however, were later expelled from the AFC and joined UEFA in 1994.
The Asian Cup is interesting in nature as it is frequently scheduled at different times of the year in order to suit the climate of the host nation. The 2007 tournament was played in July but the following three events were scheduled for January.
This is a practice that the FIFA World Cup is traditionally unaccustomed to. That is, of course, prior to the controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – the first time that the prestigious tournament will be held in the Winter.
Financial and political clout speaks volumes with FIFA and seemingly the Asian Cup is not dissimilar.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates make up 0.3% of Asia’s total population but have hosted four out of the past nine Asian Cup tournaments.
Qualification and Format
The 2019 tournament welcomes 24 teams from five sub-confederations, expanding from 16 competitors in the previous editions between 2004 and 2015.
At risk of complicating matters too much, these sub-confederations are essentially smaller governing bodies for the Central, East, South, Southeast and West regions of the vast continent of Asia.
The hosts, UAE, qualified automatically for the 2019 Asian Cup. The remaining 23 places were whittled down from 45 other national teams in the qualification campaign running from March 2015 to March 2018.
The first two rounds of the qualifying process doubled up as part of the qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The format of the 2019 Asian Cup is the same as that of Euro 2016. There are six groups of four teams. After that is a knockout stage of 16 teams.
The top two teams from each group progress, as well as the four best third-placed teams to make up the last 16. These third-placed teams who progress will face sides who finish first.
The group stage will be conducted in three match days from 5th to 17th January.
A fourth substitute is allowed in extra time of knockout ties and there is no third place playoff fixture.
The winner of the competition will participate in the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup. That competition is set to be hosted by an unannounced Asian nation after Qatar, as 2022 World Cup hosts, lost the rights.
Given that the Confederations Cup hosts qualify automatically, if that unannounced nation happens to win the 2019 Asian Cup, the runners-up will qualify too.
The Teams and Players – Who’s Going to Win?
The six groups are displayed in the handy table below:
Iran and South Korea are the bookies’ favourites. Both should top their groups comfortably. They performed well at the World Cup, with Iran holding their own in a group alongside Morocco, Spain and Portugal. South Korea, meanwhile, defeated defending champions Germany 2-0 in their final group game.
Japan and defending champions Australia are the next best favourites. Japan should not be overlooked given that they were the best performing Asian nation at the World Cup, reaching the last 16 before losing out to Belgium in a thrilling 3-2 defeat.
It seems highly likely that the eventual winners will be one of those four sides. Leading the outside contenders are hosts UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Matches will be played across eight different venues in four cities. 552 players have been selected across the 24 squads.
The most high-profile of those is Son. Tottenham struck a deal with South Korea to ensure that he doesn’t join up with the national side until after the first two fixtures. They don’t lose him until after they play Manchester United on 13th January. It’s a good job as Spurs have the toughest festive fixture schedule.
Part of this agreement was based on the North London side allowing their versatile forward to play in the Asian Games – the tournament that could have seen him end up doing 21 months military service. Thankfully, they won.
Another familiar South Korean star is Ki Sung-yueng. A veteran of 108 international caps, he amassed over 150 Premier League appearances for Swansea City and Sunderland between 2012 and 2018. He joined Newcastle for free last summer and has featured regularly on Tyneside this campaign.
The scorn with which many fans of affected Premier League clubs pour on the competition appears to be reflected by several of the clubs themselves.
Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is national team keeper for the Philippines and has 62 caps. Surprisingly, he has been omitted from the squad.
Previously he had been expected to play in the first match only, with Philippine Federation president Maiano Araneta saying that they understood “the importance of Neil with Cardiff”.
While another Neil may not agree, it doesn’t seem quite right that the Philippines, managed by Sven Goran-Eriksson, should be bowing to the presumed superiority of a Premier League outfit.
After all the Asian Cup, as we have seen, is a full FIFA tournament, so club sides are obliged to release their players for duty. We seem to be overlooking the fact that this is the biggest football tournament in the most populous continent on the planet.
As for Australia, they have six experienced players in their ranks who started the final four years ago. They include Brighton’s Mat Ryan between the sticks.
However, key midfielder Aaron Mooy, of Huddersfield, has been hit by injury and will miss the competition.
Several Aussies based in Scotland have been called up for the competition, including three Hibernian players. Celtic’s Tom Rogic will miss the Old Firm derby against Rangers on 29th December, frustrating manager Brendan Rodgers. That led to many pundits in Scotland mocking the importance of the Asian Cup.
Other recognisable faces will include Japan’s captain Maya Yoshida, who plies his trade at Southampton. Uzbekistan’s Ignatiy Nesterov is in line to join an exclusive elite group to feature in a record fifth Asian Cup, while UAE’s Ali Mabkhout claimed the 2015 Top Goal Scorer Award in Australia.
Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh was prolific for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie before joining Australia’s Ryan at Brighton last summer.
There’s also an English connection. India’s manager is Stephen Constantine – a Londoner. Retiring from playing professionally at 26, the 52-year-old has had an itinerant career sandwiching a stint managing Milwall during the 2005-06 season.
He is now in his second stint as manager of India and his career has also taken in Cyprus, Sudan, Malawi and Rwanda.
Constantine is profiled in detail in Rory Smith’s excellent book Mister, in which he tracks the influence of several Englishmen who helped to teach the game of football to the farthest reaches of the globe:
“For all the popularity of the Premier League across the globe, there is a sense that English football itself is outdated, old-fashioned, unsophisticated. The Premier League appeals because it is international, not because it is English. The homeland is no longer seen as a source of knowledge; the fountain head, it is felt has dried up”.
In pouring the aforementioned scorn on the Asian Cup, perhaps we are losing sight of this very point made by Smith. The Premier League has become what it is because of the contributions of the likes of Son. Constantine remains outside of England, disenchanted with the game back home:
“And yet a handful remain, heirs to a tradition that dates back a century or more, pioneers and mavericks and adventurers who have left home far behind to continue the spirit that first drove Fred Pentland and William Garbutt to set sail. Their work is in more exotic locations … Their impact is harder to measure. Their life, too, is harder.” – Rory Smith
So maybe our New Year’s Resolution could be to pay a bit more attention to what happens in the UAE in January. Who knows, we might just learn something different to what we’re used to.
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Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He has also contributed to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.