AFC Asian Cup 2019: 24 nations this time... prize money on offer, too!

Iran, Japan, and South Korea — all have tasted Asian Cup glory earlier — are bound to give defending champion Australia a run for its money at the AFC Asian Cup 2019.

The 24 teams will compete at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 to get their hands on this new trophy, which has been re-designed for the first time since the inaugural edition in 1956.   -  AFC

The brightest talents of Asian football will light up the United Arab Emirates when the AFC Asian Cup 2019 kicks-off at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5. Despite being the world’s second oldest continental football championship after the Copa America, the Asian Cup doesn’t receive its due importance or attract as many eyeballs as the EURO Championships or the Copa America, for that matter.

This is largely due to the fact that the last two editions have been held in the month of January, which is exactly when the title-race heats up across the top European Leagues. This often leads to clubs being reluctant to release their players to participate in the Asian Cup, thereby rendering the competition bereft of the big stars.

Take the upcoming edition for example. Son Heung-min, who captained South Korea to the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games, will join the national team only after the group stage owing to his commitments with Premier League outfit Tottenham Hotspur.

South Korean players pray after scoring their sixth goal against Bahrain ahead of the Asian Games on August 15, 2018 in Indonesia. South Korea has had an exceptional year that saw it dump defending champion Germany out of the World Cup, and go on to clinch the 2018 Asian Games gold.   -  Getty Images

 

The other factor that often robs the tournament of its importance is its no-prize-money policy. Yes, you read that right! In the 16 editions that have been played so far, the champion has only received a trophy and zilch in prize money. The AFC had promised prize money for the 2015 edition in Australia, but the money never saw the light of day. However, the body has decided to address the situation this time around, having announced a mammoth total prize money of US$14.8 million, with the winner taking home a whopping US$5million.

The tournament has been expanded to 24 nations, which would ultimately result in the dilution of competition as was widely seen at the 2016 EURO Championships. “I almost think you have more quality in this Copa America than you have with a diluted kind of 24-team version of the European Championship,” United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann had said about the EUROs ahead of the 2016 Copa America. That would hold true for the Asian Cup too.

Contradictory to this is the argument that middle and lower-ranked teams — which aren’t considered traditional footballing nations — such as Yemen, India, The Philippines, and Thailand are now provided an opportunity to rub shoulders with the best. If there’s one thing we learnt from the expansion of the EUROs, it is to expect the unexpected. Debutant Iceland took the tournament by storm when it advanced to the knockout stage and even inflicted a remarkable 2-1 win over England along the way, making the team an instant favourite across the globe. Who knows, we might have an underdog story at the Asian Cup too!

A little-known fact is that India had done well at the Asian Cup when it finished runner-up in 1964, a time when the tournament was a four-team affair. The side has failed to make an impact since, having lost all its matches in its next appearance in 2011.

India is now grouped alongside host United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Bahrain in Group A. While the Indians boast of a superior ranking compared to Thailand and Bahrain, they are not the likely favourites to advance. The Blue Tigers have crossed hurdles aplenty to return to the tournament after eight long years — playing 16 matches over a span of three years — but their preparation, in comparison to the other three, is found wanting. However, given that four of the best third-placed teams will qualify for the round-of-16, India could spring a surprise and progress.

India coach Stephen Constantine is confident of a good show at the Asian Cup.   -  Prashant Nakwe

 

India coach Stephen Constantine says: “I’m not interested in what happened in the past. We are here (Asian Cup Finals) after eight years and finished at the top of our group in the qualifying round. We are going to give our best and make India proud. I have a group of players who have, for four years, been outstanding for me and I am proud to lead these boys and we will give everything that we have in the finals.”

Reigning champion Australia made its Asian Cup debut in 2007 when it migrated from the Oceania Football Confederation to the Asian Football Confederation. The Aussies were immediately billed as one of the favourites as they had eminent players such as Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, and Mark Viduka, who plied their trade at the top European clubs. After losing in the quarter-final on debut, the team made a strong impact in its second appearance by finishing runner-up in 2011. After bagging hosting rights in 2015, the Socceroos, led by the likes of World Cuppers Cahill and Mile Jedinak, went on a rampage to defeat two-time winner South Korea and lift the title on home soil.

The Asian Cup success laid the path as Australia went on to make its fourth straight World Cup appearance. However, it turned out to be a disappointing campaign as it exited from the group stage without a single win to its name. Graham Arnold’s side has had an unbeaten run of three games since, including a 1-1 draw against South Korea. However, Arnold finds himself in a dilemma as his side is plagued with injury concerns. Midfield anchors Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani are likely to miss out on the trip to The Emirates owing to injury, while last time’s heroes, Cahill and Jedinak, have retired.

Australian Head Coach Graham Arnold with Tim Cahill during the International friendly match between the Australian Socceroos and Lebanon at the ANZ Stadium on November 20, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. Cahill has since retired and Arnold’s team is facing injury concerns as it heads to Abu Dhabi to defend the Asian Cup.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

This could affect Australia’s title defence, says Josep Gombau, who worked alongside Ange Postecoglou during Australia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. “Cahill and Jedinak have played a very crucial role so far and them missing out is going to have a big impact on the team. The current squad, however, is strong and I hope they do well,” he said.

Gombau believes that the Aussies will need to ride their luck to successfully defend their title. “In my opinion, to win these big tournaments — such as the World Cup and the EUROs — you need to have things aligned in your favour. Firstly, you need to have good players, secondly have a good overall team and thirdly, your players need to arrive in good shape. Lastly, you need to have a little but of luck. Everything has to be aligned for you to win in that one moment. Everything was aligned for Australia to win the Asian Cup in 2015 — they played the tournament at home and went on to score in extra-time in the final,” he said.

“Australia is one of the tournament’s favourites but they need to have luck as well. Their target should be to at least reach the last four,” he added.

Iran, Japan and South Korea — all of whom have tasted Asian Cup glory earlier — are bound to give Australia a run for its money. Three-time champion Iran, which hasn’t tasted continental success since its third successive title in 1976, will arrive with the confidence of staging an impressive display at the World Cup that included a creditable 1-1 draw against EURO 2016 champion Portugal.

South Korea has had an exceptional year that saw it dump defending champion Germany out of the World Cup, and go on to clinch the 2018 Asian Games gold.

Another force to reckon with will be Japan, the tournament’s most successful team till date. It will be interesting to see how the Blue Samurai copes with the exclusion of seasoned campaigners Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa, as newly-appointed coach Hajime Moriyasu prepares for his first major outing.

Emirati fans give solid support whenever their team plays. And the host, UAE, has put together a fine attacking side for the Asian Cup.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

One team that cannot be ruled out is host United Arab Emirates, which finished third in the previous edition. Fielding a fine attacking side that includes the likes of the 2015 Asian Cup Golden Boot winner Ali Mabkhout, UAE could ride on the host’s luck — which has seen the host nation win seven out of the 16 editions — and go all the way. Iran, Japan and South Korea — all have tasted Asian Cup glory earlier — are bound to give defending champion Australia a run for its money.