Group D. If there is a rule that every competition has to have a group of death, then this it is. But in Asia, death is more deadly than just a word. Iran and Iraq have recently fought a long and bloody war, while Iraq’s celebrations following their semi-final win in the 2007 tournament was followed by a bomb blast which killed 50 celebrating fans in Baghdad.
By winning the 2007 tournament, Iraq have been excused from the qualification this time. Prior to 2007, the Iraqi record was three successive tournaments in which they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage. For the 2010 World Cup, Iraq had an easy win over Pakistan, but were then placed in a difficult four team group with Australia, Qatar and China, and the added disadvantage of playing home games in Dubai. After drawing with China in the first game, they then lost in both Qatar and Australia. Some pride was regained with a home win over Australia and a fine win (which I saw) at Tianjin, in China. The result meant that the Chinese were out, while Australia were through with a game to play, while Iraq played Qatar in Dubai for a place in the next round. Qatar won this match 1-0. As Asian Champions, Iraq went to the 2007 Confederations Cup in South Africa. Their Asian Cup win was based on solid defence, and the Confederations Cup was little difference. In a group with South Africa, Spain and New Zealand, Iraq conceded only a single goal to Spain but at the other end of the field, they did not score in any of their games, and hence did not reach the semi-finals.
In September 2010, Iraq played the West Asian Federation Cup, beating both Yemen and Palestine in group games, but then losing 2-1 to Iran in the semi-finals. November saw the Gulf Cup, and draws (both 0-0) with UAE and Oman, sandwiching a victory over Bahrain. This was followed by another semi-final defeat on penalties to Kuwait after a 2-2 draw. Kuwait won both the West Asian, and Gulf tournaments. The coach, Wolfgang Sidka has much experience, but mainly in the lower divisions in his native Germany. He is knownin the region having had a spell as coach of Bahrain, and both Al Arabi and Al Gharafa in Qatar. The team is captained by Younis Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in the previous tournament and will be relied upon to inspire the team again. Mahmoud plays for Al Gharafa in Qatar, one of six players who play there. Still, as a sign that some normality is returning to their home nation, ten of the players now play league football in Iraq. Others play in Iran (3), Indonesia (2), Turkey and Libya.
By contrast, all but two of the Iranian squad currently play football within their home country. One of the two exceptions is Javan Nekounam, who at 30 years old is about the best known of the current Iranian squad. At lot will be expected of the national captain in what may be his last major tournament. Nekounam plays for Osasuna in Spain along with the 26 year old Masoud Shojaei. There are a few other players in the squad who have been beyond the national borders, and best known in England would be Andranik Teymourian, formerly of Bolton Wanderers and Fulham. Teymourian was born into the Armenian community in Tehran and is apparently the only Christian in the Iranian team. Last summer, Teymourian was released from a disappointing spell with Fulham, and although both Blackburn and Sheffield United were reported to be interested in signing him, he returned to Iran after his work permit was not extended, and he signed for Tractor Sazi in September. At Tractor Sazi, he plays with another national team veteran, Mohamed Nosrati.
The past record of Iran places them as one of the best in Asia, with three appearances (1978, 1998 and 2006) in the World Cup finals, although never passing the first round. They won three successive Asian Cups in 1968,1972 and 1976, although they had the advantage of being hosts in both 68 and 72. Of the eight tournaments since then, they have lost in the semi-finals on five occasions, ending up in third place four times. The last of these was in China in 2004. Twice they were beaten in the quarter finals (including the last tournament), while only in Japan in 1992 did they fail to get out of the group. Qualification for this tournament was reasonably straight forward, topping a group including Singapore, Jordan and Thailand, Iran won all their home games and also the away match in Singapore. Recently, they were losing finalists in the West Asian tournament (to Kuwait). Iran have won this title on four out of six occasions it has been played.
The coach, Afshin Ghotbi does not have a senior playing career, having played for no one more senior than UCLA in California. Ghotbi moved to California at the age of 13, and started coaching there when he was only 20. He has been chief scout to the USA team, and assistant coach at Suwon Bluewings in Korea, and LA Galaxy in USA, and then for the Korean national team under Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek. He returned to Iran in 2007 as coach of Persepolis, who won the league title in 2008. Despite this Ghotbi disagreed with the club owners and left in the autumn. He was appointed as Iran head coach in April 2009, when bad performances under previous coaches had already dented their chances of reaching the World Cup. After the Asian cup, Ghotbi has already agreed to move to Japan and take over Shimizu S-Pulse.
Third of the teams in the group is the United Arab Emirates. Like Iraq, this is an Arabian Gulf Nation, which plays in the bi-annual Arabian Gulf Cup. Although Iran also borders the same piece of water, the Iranians are not Arabs (and consider it an insult to be called Arab), and do not enter the Gulf Cup. Indeed whenever I have read about the Gulf Cup on message boards, there always seems to be Iranians complaining about the name of the competition. In Iran, the waterway is known as the Persian Gulf, and they even name their own Premier competition, “The Persian Gulf Cup” (even though it is a league).
At the UAE, the coach for the last 18 months has been Srecko Katanec a Slovenian who has played internationally for Yugoslavia and Slovenia. As a full back for Sampdoria in 1992, he played in the European Cup final at Wembley, losing 1-0 to Barcelona. He became coach of Slovenian club in 1998, but moved on in the summer to become Slovenian national manager. Under his stewardship, Slovenia reached the Euro finals of 2000, and the World Cup finals of 2002. He resigned after the team performed badly in 2002, and after a public argument with star player Zlatko Zahovic. This appears to be a pattern, he later coached Macedonia and resigned in April 2009 after a spat with Goran Pandev. In Asian terms, UAE always appears to be about, but rarely make an impression on the major tournaments. They have only qualified for one World Cup in 1990, losing all three group matches, but in the Asian Cup, they have qualified for all but one of the last nine tournaments. Having said that, they have left after the first round on five occasions. The exceptions being in Japan, 1992 when they were beaten semi-finalists, and four years later, as hosts, when they lost to neighbours Saudi Arabia in the final. UAE are members of the West Asian Football Federation, but have declined to participate in their major tournament. They have won the Gulf Cup once, on their own territory in 2007, and have been runners-up on three occasions. All of the 23 man squad for this Asian Cup play professional football within the UAE, and I am not aware of any having spent time abroad. Qualification was by the relatively easy Group C, with only three teams after India withdrew. Malaysia were beaten twice, and Uzbekistan in the away game.
That leaves North Korea, a country that decided not to bother at the start of the qualifying procedure, instead concentrating on their bid to reach the World Cup, while playing in the 2008 and 2010 Asian Challenge Cups. With its complex internal politics, nothing about North Korea is simple. It is well known that the North Koreans played in the 1966 World Cup in England. The rest of the story is less well advertised. After FIFA has decided that only one place in England would be available to countries from Asia, Africa and Oceania, all of the African entries withdrew, except for South Africa (who were expelled due to apartheid). The Asia/Oceania group only consisted of North and South Korea, and Australia, (South Africa would have played in it as well, had they not been removed), but FIFA originally scheduled it to be played in Japan. Then, for some reason, FIFA relocated the matches to Cambodia. This was not to the delight of South Korea who added to the withdrawals, leaving North Korea and Australia to play out two games in November 1965, with North Korea winning by 6-1 and 3-1. Although the North Koreans lost to the Soviet Union in their first game, a draw against Chile and victory over Italy meant they reached the quarter-finals, where they lost their 3-0 lead over Portugal, finally going down 5-3. After that, North Korean failures generally came in the qualifying stages, although they declined to even enter for 1998 and 2002. Their 2006 qualifying campaign came to an ignominious end. In a home match against Iran, with North Korean chances of qualifying already slender, the referee refused to award a penalty, and then sent off a Korean for protesting too much. This caused rioting amongst the fans, and the throwing of bottles and stones onto the pitch. In the end, riot police were required to re-create order and FIFA ordered their next home match to be played behind closed doors in Bangkok. In the 2010 World Cup qualification, North Korea started with a 9-2 aggregate win over Mongolia. This placed them in a group with Turkmenistan, Jordan, and South Korea. It sounded too good to miss, and I had made most of the arrangements to get to the match when it came out that North Korea would not agree to all conditions required to hold the match (which included flying the South Korean flag and playing their anthem at the stadium). As a result, the match was switched to Shanghai, China and was drawn 0-0. Fortunately, I was able (for a price) to reschedule my visit to June, and saw North Korea beat Turkmenistan 1-0. The following week, they beat Jordan 2-0 and reached the next round (I was in China, and saw the Chinese knocked out by Iraq). The return match against South Korea completed the group, (this was played in South Korea), a further scoreless draw being inconsequential as both teams were already through. North Korea’s record in four games was three wins, three draws, four goals scored and none conceded. In the next stage, they drew South Korea again, plus Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE. Again the home match against South Korea was played to a draw in China this time 1-1. Of the matches in Pyongyang, the Koreans beat both UAE and Saudi Arabia, and drew with Iran. They also won their away match in UAE, and drew in Saudi Arabia, losing to Iran and South Korea. This was enough for them to finish second in the group and gain their ticket to South Africa. In the finals, they performed well against Brazil, going down to 2-1 defeat, but then crashed to Portugal and the Ivory Coast. Reports say this was received badly back home, and the team was subjected to public humiliation on their return, but the source of these reports has never been verified.
Whatever may have happened to the World Cup team on their return to North Korea, the squad for the Asian Cup is basically the same team, 17 of the 23 players from are in both squads, and all the players that started in the World Cup are there again. (Of the six players dropped, four did not take to the field in South Africa, and the other two were used only as substitutes). The reports did say that coach Kim Jong-Hun came in for special criticism, being accused of betraying Kim Jong-un (the heir apparent to Kim Jong-il as supreme leader). Kim Jong-Hun is no longer with the team, and the chief coach is now Jo Tong Sop. Jo has been coach of the under-19 team, which won the Asian U-19 championship in October. He has also acted as assistant to the previous coach and took charge of the team for the Asian Challenge Cup in February. Having not played in the Asian Cup qualification, North Korea needed to win the Challenge Cup to make it to this Asian final. Despite this, they did not send out their potential World Cup team, for what may have proved to be a useful preparation, but instead sent out a very young side. Despite a shaky start, the Koreans opened up with some stylish and attacking football to win the title. Only one of the players in Sri Lanka had played for the team I saw in World Cup qualifying in 2008, while four made it into the finals World Cup squad. A further three have been promoted to the senior squad for this tournament.
Not all the North Korean squad plays football in North Korea. Three members of the squad are Zainichi Koreans, (which means they were born in Japan). This trio are Ryong Yong-Gi and An Yong-Hak, both still based in Japan, and Jong Tae-Se, now with VfL Bochum in Germany. The North Korean captain, Hong Yong-Jo became, I believe, the first North Korean player to switch to a foreign club (with official permission) when he joined FK Bezanija, then in the Serbian Super League. A year later he switched to Russian Premier side Rostov, where he has now spent three seasons. In 2008, Kim Kuk-Jin moved to Corcordia Basel in the Swiss Second Division, and a year later he transferred to FC Wil, who this season have signed a second North Korean, Cha Jong-Hyok
Iran are rated 4th in Asia according to FIFA, but only 66th worldwide, Iraq’s rankings are 9/101, UAE 12/105 and North Korea 14/108. This suggests that Iran should be able to qualify, while the others are rather close to call. Indeed Iraq and UAE should be favoured by the climate. However, this group is far more complex. Iran and Iraq play each other first, and the winner of this game must be a favourite to qualify. This game is akin to a local derby in England, where form can go out of the window. The key to the group is the enigma which is North Korea. They are clearly quite capable of beating their own ranking and qualifying from the group. If North Korea beat UAE in their first game, then I think they will go through. If North Korea lose, then I would be surprised if they recover, although this is not the same as saying UAE will qualify.
Looking at the squad lists, and the 368 players who will be in Qatar, I find that 277 (just over 75%) play their football in their home country. Three teams, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE use only players from their own leagues. Qatar, China and India have just one player outside their domestic league, and Iran uses only local players, with the exception of two with Osasuna in Spain. At the other end of the spectrum, only four members of the Australian squad play in their A-League, and one of those is with the New Zealand side, Wellington Phoenix. The 91 players who play league football in “foreign” countries play in 29 different countries, although eight of these are playing in the tournament itself. Indeed, the hosts Qatar have the biggest number of Asian Cup foreigners. Six of these are with Iraq, and four with local neighbours Bahrain. Iraq is the only country, apart from Australia with more than half its squad playing outwith its own borders.
Top European nation in providing players to the tournament is England with nine. Seven of these are Australians (two of which do not play in the Premier League), while the other pair are South Koreans. There are eight Bundesliga players in the team, which appears to be the Japanese destination of choice. Five members of the Japanese team play in Germany, along with Hao Junmin of China, Sun Heung-Min of South Korea and Jong Tae-Se of North Korea. The South Korean team also utilises two players at Celtic. The only Asian country that has failed to qualify, but has representation for its league is Indonesia, thanks to two Iraqis at Persjia Jakarta. Two of the North African countries are represented, with a Qatari at Zamalek in Egypt, and an Iraqi at Al Ahly Tripoli in Algeria. The only person who plays in Oceania is Wellington’s Jade North. Of course, as an A-League player, he plays half his games in Australia (i.e. the away ones). Finally, there is an Indian playing in the USA for Kansas City in the MLS.
Only six of the coaches are nationals of the country they are coaching. Of the others, nine are Europeans, while the odd one out is the Iraqi Adnan Hamad, who now coaches Jordan.