Asia Cup, Qatar Seeks Repeat but Japan is the Top Favorite


The recently commenced 2024 lists numerous continental competitions, including the Asian Cup. Although its level might be lower compared to our European competitions, the Copa America, and the African Cup, it offers points of interest for national teams emerging onto the international football scene. It serves as an essential platform for lesser-known players, marking the kickoff on January 12.

Remaining a topic of just a few days ago, the countdown for the 18th edition of the Asian Cup has begun. Qatar, fresh from the recent World Cup, is hosting the continental event, also being the holder of a trophy historically dominated by Japan in terms of victories.

Twenty-four national teams are participating, selected after a qualification phase that lacked North Korea due to the pandemic. An interesting case is that of East Timor, excluded for fielding ineligible players during the 2019 qualifiers, involving straightforward naturalizations of Brazilians.

The lengthy qualification phase began on June 6, 2019. According to the ranking, a first round took place where security problems arose. For instance, Macao chose to forfeit the match in Sri Lanka after the April 21, 2019 attacks.

The winners joined the other national teams, playing in a round-robin format (eight groups of five national teams each), a mechanism that also rewarded qualification for the 2022 World Cup. Finally, a third round determined the last available spots.

Many of the qualified teams were already present at the 2019 edition held in the United Arab Emirates, but surprises are common in sports. For instance, the return of Indonesia and Malaysia, absent since 2007, and Hong Kong absent since its sole participation in 1968. Tajikistan makes its debut in an international tournament for the first time.

Then there are their respective stories. For example, while Iran leads the special participation ranking (14), followed by South Korea (13), China (12), Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (10), it’s worth recounting Oman’s path with five appearances (including the upcoming one), all in the new millennium. Australia was included in the more reliable tournament since 2007, with due respect for the level of opponents in Oceania.

These are the groups for the final stage, where the top two teams and the best four third-placed teams will advance to the round of 16: Gr. A: Qatar, China, Tajikistan, Lebanon. Gr. B: Australia, Uzbekistan, Syria, India. Gr. C: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Hong Kong. Gr. D: Japan, Indonesia, Iraq, Vietnam. Gr. E: South Korea, Malaysia, Jordan, Bahrain. Gr. F: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand.

It’s hard to lean toward an absolute favorite, but certainly, there are teams at the forefront for the final victory. Among them, Australia was narrowly defeated in the World Cup round of 16 by Argentina, who then won the trophy. South Korea is consistently challenging and boasts players currently prominent in Europe, such as former Napoli player Kim Min-Jae, now with Bayern Munich, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Mainz’s Lee Jae-sung, PSG’s Lee Kang-in, and Freiburg’s Jeong Woo-yeong.

Saudi Arabia, led by former Italian national team coach Roberto Mancini, should not be underestimated. They imported European players who raised the level of their athletes. In the last World Cup, they were excluded in the group stage but showcased performances that would have deserved at least progression to the round of 16, including a stunning win against Argentina in their debut.

Japan, boasting the (on paper) best team, has a majority of players selected from Europe, including internationally acclaimed Endo and Minamino. In the last World Cup, they achieved prestigious (and historic) wins in the group stage against Germany and Spain, then lost in the round of 16 only on penalties against Croatia, who would later eliminate Brazil.

Their qualifying journey speaks volumes: eight wins out of eight in the second round, with a goal difference of +44 (46 goals scored and 2 conceded). Their cohesion as a team will matter, not forgetting how individual talent can make a difference, especially in more balanced matches.

Finally, Iran shouldn’t be forgotten, traditionally present in the World Cup, yet their last Asian Cup victory dates back to 1976. Many players are in Europe, with Roma’s Sardar Azmoun, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, considered by the local media as the Iranian Messi. Mehdi Taremi, with numerous goals for Porto, and many other players are aware that a historic result would make them national heroes.

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Andrea La Rosa

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