Setting the Scene

It can be said that once you have a National Football Association, the most logical thing to do is to arrange a match against your nearest neighbours (and show them that you are better at the game). The Continental Federations, meanwhile have very little better to do than organise international competitions. Hence the Copa America, the oldest continental tournament dates back to 1916, the same date as the formation of the South American federation, (Conmebol). UEFA was formed in 1954, with the European Cup starting the following year and the first European Championships in 1960. The North and Central American CONCACAF were founded in 1961, with its first championship two years later – and this was the merger of two other smaller confederations each with their own championship. The Asian Cup, starting in 1956 and the Cup of African Nations a year later were both started hot on the heels of the formation of the Continental federation. Only in Oceania, a disparate confederation whose main purpose is to take on those islands not in any other grouping did a competition not start immediately. The Oceania Football Confederation was started in 1966, but only two championships were played before a regular formula was commenced in 1996. Australia have either won, or finished second to New Zealand in every competition they competed in, but have now jumped ship and become part of Asia. To some extent it is only the force of world football that has forced Oceania into having competitions, with the last two continental championships also being the World Cup qualification matches, and providing a team for the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In a similar style, the Oceania Champions League is now played annually to provide a team for the World Club Championships. It is worth noting that every continent except South America now calls its club championship the “Champions League”, and none are limited in entry to Champions only. The Copa Libertadores retains its historical name and introduced group stages back in 1962 and allowed teams, other than Champions from 1966.

Back to Asia, where the AFC has been running since the mid-fifties, and the first Asian Cup started in 1956. The first tournament should have had ten teams, with four playing the finals in Hong Kong. As it was, Israel was given a free ride to the finals, as both Afghanistan and Pakistan withdrew. South Korea qualified at the expense of Taiwan and the Philippines, and South Vietnam at the expense of Malaysia and Cambodia. The overall title was won by South Korea in a single round robbing group. Over the years, the numbers grew, and the politics became a little easier after the movement of Israel to UEFA. By 1996, there were 37 countries competing, 44 in 2000, 43 in 2004, but only 29 for 2007 and 24 for 2011.

Why the sudden discrepancy? Asia has not lost teams (Kazakhstan have switched to Europe, but for 2007, Australia came in from Oceania). The answer is the Asian Challenge Cup. Up until the 2004 Asian Cup, qualifying tournaments were held in single venues over a short period of time, but some of the bigger countries wanted more competitive home fixtures. (Asia’s World Cup qualification used to also be single venue, so a country not chosen to host matches only had friendly home games). The smaller countries baulked at the idea of travelling across the continent to get heavily beaten – in some cases they just would not have been able to afford to compete. To fill the void, and provide competitive football for those clubs not involved in the Asian Cup, the Challenge Cup was started in 2006. The first Challenge Cup was for 16 teams, with no qualification competition and just the finals in Bangladesh. It was the first Continental Championship, Second Division.

The AFC divided their 45 countries (pre-Australia) into three groups. The top 14 were those who might expect to reach most Asian Cup final series, and could even put in a good run in the World Cup (some of the weaker teams in the list must have been questionable). These were Bahrain, China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, UAE, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The second group, also 14 countries were called developing associations – the theory that they could grow to join the developed associations in the first group, but in the meantime they would settle for being knocked out of Asian and World Cups in group games. These were Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Singapore, Syria, Turkmenistan and Yemen.

The final 17 were called emerging nations, in some cases more in hope than expectation. They were Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Taiwan, East Timor, Guam, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. You may think this is simple, the first two groups, plus new boys Australia make up the 29 entrants into the Asian Cup, while the final 17 lose one somehow to become the Challenge Cup entrants. Asia is never as simple as that. It would appear that the emerging group had the option to enter both, an option taken up by Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, although Sri Lanka from the Asian Cup without playing – the Maldives, Myanmar and North Korea not entering the Asian Cup. Meanwhile Mongolia, Laos and East Timor did not enter the Challenge Cup, so the AFC drafted in India and Bangladesh (the latter as hosts) and increased the number of teams entered for both competitions to five. The competition was won by Tajikistan, who won five of their six matches, losing the last group match to Kyrgyzstan only after they were confirmed as through anyway. They beat Sri Lanka in the final by 4-0.

In order to juice up the 2008 and 2010 Challenge Cups, the AFC decided that the champions of each would gain qualification to the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. They also decided that the top three from the 2007 competition did not need to qualify, and the hosts, of course had a free run. This meant that only 10 places were available through qualification. Never one for simplification, the AFC allowed 21 teams into this competition, meaning a single knock out match (the Maldives being beaten twice by the Lebanon), and then placed the remaining 20 into five groups of four.

Before qualification started for the Asian Cup, there was the 2008 Challenge Cup. The AFC had managed to reduce the numbers, so only one Asian Cup team was also entered this time; this being the host nation, India. As well as India, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Myanmar were made top seeds and exempt from qualifying. Holders Tajikistan, beaten finalist Sri Lanka and losing semi-finalists Kyrgyzstan and Nepal from 2006 were all asked to qualify again. Only Kyrgyzstan of this quartet had the advantage of a home qualifying series, (they were all single venue), but curiously they were they only one to lose out, beaten by Afghanistan. Bangladesh came third in this group, while Laos withdrew without playing. Nepal played in Cambodia, where the hosts were second, Macau lost two games, and Palestine withdrew without playing. Sri Lanka finished ahead of Pakistan, hosts Taiwan and Guam. The closest group saw Tajikistan ahead of hosts Philippines on goal difference, with Brunei and Bhutan only getting a point by drawing with each other.

The finals in Hyderabad must have been a great disappointment to the organisers. It should have used Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium as its main venue, but the poor condition of the former international cricket ground meant that most games were switched to Gachibowli Athletics Stadium. The final was then rained off, and switched to New Delhi. This may be seen as a godsend. While no match in Hyderabad was watched by more than 1500 (India’s semi-final) and most by just one or two hundred, the final was seen by around 10,000 spectators. The group matches did at least confirm the AFC seedings, with only holders Tajikistan of the qualified teams reaching the semi-finals. Their neighbours, Turkmenistan missing out. India went through to the final where they beat Tajikistan 4-1. North Korea beat Myanmar 4-0 to take third place

The result meant that India had qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, some four months before the qualifying campaign was due to start. Naturally they withdrew, leaving one group a team short.

For the 2010 Asian Cup, which was long rumoured to again be held in India, there was originally a possible 23 teams, but Guam, East Timor and Guam chose not to compete. The Maldives (who of course had already failed in qualification for the Asian Cup) and Mongolia came in having missed the 2008 edition. Three teams were given exemption to the finals, India, Tajikistan and North Korea. Not only were these the top three from the last competition, but they were also the top three using FIFA rankings (which decided seeing). The other 17 teams were to be placed into four groups of four, with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh chosen as hosts. This meant the worst two on the rankings; Macau and Mongolia had to fight out a preliminary two-legged tie. The scores were 2-0 to Macau in the first leg (crowd 500) and 3-1 to Mongolia in Ulan Bator (3000). Macau went through on away goals.

The first group to play was in Nepal, in March 2009, with Afghanistan announcing their withdrawal two days before the group started. All three matches ended in draws with Kyrgyzstan taking the honours thanks to the fact they drew both games 1-1, while Nepal and Palestine drew 0-0. There were crowds of 12,000 and 15,000 when Nepal played in Kathmandu, 2000 for the game without the hosts. Nepal was placed second in the group, by virtue of less yellow cards. Sri Lanka staged the second group, winning their first two games, meaning they only needed to draw against Pakistan in the last game. This match finished 2-2, leaving Pakistan in second, Taiwan third and Brunei (three defeats bottom of the table). The best attendance recorded in Colombo was 3000 for Sri Lanka’s final game. The worst was only 200, not a good omen for the finals. A week later, the Maldives group was played, with the home side losing to Turkmenistan 3-1 in the opening game. Turkmenistan went on to score seven against Bhutan and five against the Philippines to take a 100% record. The home side also won their other two games, and recorded official crowds of 9000 for each game. A few hundred only was recorded for games not involving the hosts. The Philippines took third place by virtue of beating Bhutan 1-0. Finally, attention turned to Dhaka, where the attendances were very good. All of Bangladesh games were seen by over 8000 and the deciding game by 14,000. This was the second game, and resulted in the home side losing 2-1 to Myanmar. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar won their first and third games, while Cambodia beat Macau to finish third.

Curiously, this meant that all four groups finished in the order one might expect using the rankings given by FIFA in January 2009, (when the groups were drawn). Finally, there was one place to be given to the best runner up. Due to Afghanistan’s withdrawal, games against the fourth placed team in the groups were discounted. This would prove crucial. Both Bangladesh and the Maldives had beaten the third placed team, but lost to the group winners, while both Pakistan and Nepal had drawn against the group winners, and the third placed team. No fourth placed team had picked up a point. So Bangladesh and the Maldives had three points, against the others with two. Bangladesh had a level goal difference, and this took them through. Had all games counted, the Maldives with a bigger win would have made it.

Sometime after all the matches were completed, the decision to play in Sri Lanka was taken. I think this is fair enough, no stadiums are being built, so six months is surely enough preparation time. Anyway, with one of the stadiums for the finals changing in the week before they were played, it seems that very little pre-planning was really done. The groups for the finals are A), Tajikistan (148), Bangladesh (150), Myanmar (141) and Sri Lanka (151) and B) India (130), Kyrgyzstan (158), Turkmenistan (134) and North Korea (85) – showing the current FIFA rankings in brackets. This however may not be a tournament where the seeding holds sway. Three teams are less than full strength. The Indians admitted so, with nothing for them to win, they are using their under-23 team, rather than the full international side. They did the same in the recent South Asia Football Federation finals, which they won, beating the Maldives on penalties in the final. Sri Lanka was so disappointed with their performance in the same tournament, that they ‘disbanded’ the senior team afterwards. The preliminary squad list I have seen suggests 50-50 between reasonably experienced players and youngsters with hardly a cap, while Panushanth Kulenthiren is staying with his club (Roma) in Europe. The North Korean squad is also bare of the majority of players that competed in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign. It appears that while they bemoan the fact they failed to make the finals of the East Asian tournament (currently underway in Tokyo) as it would have brought them up against China, Japan and South Korea and given them a good preparation of the World Cup, they do not consider this to be a good second choice. I find this surprising as it is their chance to play in next year’s Asian Cup. With their best teams, I would have expected North Korea and India to reach the final, but now I feel the central Asians, particularly Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to be the most likely finalists.

The next post on this Blog will be posted from Sri Lanka