Asian Cup set to kick-off

Updated: 30 June 2007 06:32 IST

For the vast bulk of Southeast Asian people, sports like tennis, golf and Formula One are remote pursuits, accessible only to the moneyed elites.


Asian Cup factfile
Asian Cup Champions

For the vast bulk of Southeast Asian people, sports like tennis, golf and Formula One are remote pursuits, accessible only to the moneyed elites.

The people's game is soccer.

And from July 7-29 it will take center stage as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam co-host the Asian Cup - the continental championship for national teams.

The Asian Football Confederation elected to spread the 14th edition of the competition over four countries, despite the inherent logistical and organizational headaches.

It is telling that FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has all but ruled out future shared hosting for the World Cup after the issues caused in 2002 when South Korea and Japan staged the finals.

But for all the difficulties that may result, the Asian Cup spread provides a hosting opportunity to four countries that otherwise would rarely get to see this caliber of athlete at this level.

As much as the event will be a theatre for nationalistic fervour, there is also considerable excitement among the neutrals about the arrival of Australia's Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Japan's Shunsuke Nakamura, Iran's Mehdi Mahdavikia and their ilk.

This edition of the Asian Cup seems to have captured the public imagination in a way not seen since it first contested in 1956.

Mostly this is a reflection of Asia's ever-improving soccer status, with the confederation now boasting 14 of the world's top 100 nations as measured by FIFA rankings.

Aussie debut

The largest novelty factor for this Asian Cup is the inaugural appearance of Australia, which switched to Asia from the Oceania confederation after the 2006 World Cup.

Thanks to widespread television coverage of the English Premier League, Australia's stars such as Viduka, Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton are familiar faces to Southeast Asian soccer fans, and their appearance is eagerly anticipated.

Displaying the confidence inherent in many Australian sports teams, the Socceroos have already declared anything short of an appearance in the July 29 final will be a failure.

Given Australia's performance at the World Cup, when it came close to eliminating eventual champion Italy in the second round, such confidence is perhaps justified.

The Socceroos should have little problem navigating their way out of Group A, which also includes Thailand, Iraq and Oman, but Australia's confident forecasts do seem to underestimate the quality of its rivals.

Japan's star power

Defending champion Japan has won three of the past four Asian Cups, and possesses star quality in Nakamura and striker Naohiro Takahara, although big-name stars of past campaigns Hidetoshi Nakata and Juinichi Inamoto are missing and the squad consists mostly of J-League players.

Japan, which lost to Australia 1-0 in the first round of the World Cup, is favorite to progress from Group B against Vietnam, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, while Iran is the heavyweight of Group C, which includes China, Malaysia and Uzbekistan.

In terms of quality of personnel in squads for this tournament, Iran ranks behind only Australia. The likes of Mahdavikia, Andranik Teymourian, Rahmen Rezaei, Vahid Hashemian and Ali Karimi are Europe-based professionals.

Iran has won three Asian Cups - in succession between 1968 and 1976 - but must improve on its lacklustre showing at Germany 2006 if it is to threaten its fellow big fish in this event.

Group D is the most intriguing, with South Korea and Saudi Arabia both likely to fancy their chances of topping the group, which also includes Indonesia and Bahrain.

South Korea won the first two Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960 but not since.

Its chances of ending that drought have been rocked by the unavailability of English-based stars Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo and Seol Ki-hyeon plus experienced midfielder Kim Nam-il.

Prior to the most recent Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia made the final five times in succession and since 1994 have been perennials at the World Cup.

Few of its players enjoy a significant reputation outside the Gulf region, but their record of progression in World Cup qualifiers and this tournament cannot be ignored.

Challenge for hosts

In all but three of the past 13 Asian Cups, the hosts have finished in the top three.

But it will takes a large degree of imagination to foresee any of the four hosts doing the same in this edition, even with the advantage of the oppressive humidity they're used to.

Thailand is perhaps the best equipped to make a challenge to qualify for the knock-out stages, with much hinging on the outcome of the tournament's opener against Iraq on July 7.

The Elephants finished third when they last hosted the tournament in 1972, but have failed to pass the first round since.

The eclectic nature of the Asian confederation - ranging as it does from the Arab Gulf states to former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, from China to Australia - provides a clash of soccer cultures and playing styles that no other continental championship can match.

It makes the task of accurately forecasting a winner enormously difficult, but one prediction that can confidently be made is this Asian Cup will be the biggest sporting event ever hosted in the four nations.

Topics : Football Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom
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