The Asian Cup – A European Perspective

Based as I am in Europe, I would not presume to know all there is to know about Asian Football. Indeed with the continent being so spread out, I doubt if many Asian commentators can view the whole picture. Having said that, I have travelled frequently to Asia over the last two decades, and I am not a novice when it comes to Asian football.

The first port of call in searching out the relative chances of teams in a competition in International rankings, this is especially true in Asia, where matches seem more likely to go according to form (as compared, for example with Africa, where venue tends to be of primary consideration). No international ranking system is perfect, and I find it helps to compare two. The first of these is produced by FIFA – this is a valid system, but FIFA need to generate news headlines with each monthly iteration – so they have been designed to allow rapid movement in either direction given a few good or bad results. The other rankings are available on the internet at www.eloratings.net, and appear to be a labour of love, with no commercial input. These are updated on almost every day an international match takes place.

In Asia, though, there is little difference between the rankings. Both have the top four on the continent to be Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea. This quartet are allocated one each to the four groups for the Asian Cup, and must be the favourites. FIFA has Uzbekistan as fifth, with Saudi Arabia, Oman, China and Iraq following. I am not certain how the Uzbeks won their position, and neither are the ELO ratings, which put them in 9th, but have the other quartet in the same order. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain follow in the ELO ratings, as 10th 11th and 14th, while FIFA has this trio as 13th, 10th and 14th. Both are in agreement that Jordan are the best side to have missed out! The rankings for the host nations are lower in both ratings system, although it appears Thailand are the best of the quartet. (Despite the South East Asia championship, Singapore still appear below Thailand in the ratings).

Apart from the rankings, naturally I look at the make up of the squads. This is where being in Europe does not help. There are just too many names that one does not know, even having watched matches in some of the Asian Leagues, the last Asian Cup and the Gulf Cup back in January (which featured six qualifiers). The best football leagues, however are in Europe, and it is worth looking to see who comes in from these countries. From this point of view, Australia has the nap hand with the majority of their squad coming from European leagues, and with a number of players who could be called stars even in that company. The three big East Asian countries all have a few players in Europe – but even when they play at the best clubs, one cannot say they are more than ordinary players in the company they keep. Elsewhere, there are a few Iranians that have done really well in the German Bundesliga, but not very many other West Asian players travel to Europe. This is a pity, as there clearly are some that would make the grade and it may well improve their games – but with plenty of money available in Arab countries, few look further abroad. The host quartet do not have any of their players in the European leagues, and are failing to produce players that could make it. This should be a cause for concern to all of them.

Oddly, Japan has shunned a number of European based players and picked a squad based almost entirely on the J-League with just Celtic’s Nakamura, and Frankfurt’s Takahara as exceptions. The Koreans on the other hand have been given no choice, with three players from the English Premiership absent through injury. Lee Young-Pyo (Tottenham), Seol Ki-Hyeon (Reading) and Park Si-Jung (Manchester United) being the trio concerned, a further blow is an injury to the veteran Kam Nam-il of Suwon. The squad does include Middlesbrough’s Lee Dong-Gook, Kim Dong-jin and Lee Ho of St Petersburg, and Lee Chunsoo who plays in Japan for Shimizu S-Pulse. The Chinese include four players (Sun Jihai, Li Tie, Shao Joayi and Dong Fangzhou) currently in Europe, plus two more just returning from loan spells, (Zheng Zhi and Sun Xiang).

The host, South East Asian countries do not have any players who ply their trade outside the region – and in no way if this due to the comfort zone as in West Asian – if there were players good enough, then surely they would want to play in Europe. The final qualifier for the finals is Uzbekistan, the only one of the former Soviet republics to be able to hold their own consistently at this level. Geographically remote from the other entrants, the Uzbeks look to their former comrades, and have several players from the Russian and Ukraine leagues in their ranks.

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