There is nothing better for a sporting tournament than when the host nation starts the competition well, and Australia have done that in the Asian Cup, winning both their opening games and scoring four goals in each. They are now assured a place in the quarter finals. That is before they play their last group game against their toughest opposition South Korea.
This is where the competition will start to get harder.
Despite this being the third Asian Cup competition that Australia has competed in, to many diehard fans and this writer it is still a competition that is a little underwhelming. However it is a competition Australia needs to be a part of and far better than what was on offer in Oceania.
Why is it hard to get enthusiastic about the competition as a whole? Is it because Asian football is currently going through a bit of slump? Based on last year’s World Cup which was only six months ago Asia had little to get excited about. All the Asian teams failed to progress from the Group stage and all failed to record a win. The coaches of Iran, Japan and South Korea all were sacked or quit; Australia had only just appointed theirs so that was never going to happen. To add to the misery one must also remember that the fifth best team in Asia, Jordan were thrashed by Uruguay in a play-off to get to the finals.
There is an argument that the gulf between those nations who qualified for the World Cup and the rest is what causes the lack of interest in the early stages of the competition. Without taking anything away from Australia’s performances which have been impressive, -although defensively this writer still has concerns – surely the Socceroos would have been expected to see off Oman and Kuwait? The same with South Korea, although they were less convincing than Australia in their victories. Iran were expected to beat Bahrain and Japan to beat tournament debutants Palestine. Iran would be expected to continue winning ways tonight against Qatar and Japan to do the same against Iraq. It is that predictability that makes the group stage hard to get excited about. The real competition comes alive when the Quarter Finals start; although one should never underplay the importance of momentum from the group stage, and Australia currently have that.
One cannot help feeling that the AFC have tried to run before they can walk with this tournament. In that there are too many teams who just aren’t up to a suitable standard. However the argument is that by playing at tournaments such as this one is an incentive to improve, creates interest, and the financial opportunity to improve. It is a very difficult balancing act.
With only sixteen teams competing at the Asian Cup there is little that the AFC can do to create more excitement and interest. They could cut the tournament back to being a ten team tournament, playing in two pools of five with the top two teams in each pool progressing and crossing over. The top teams playing the second placed team in the opposite group. Hockey has used a similar format very successfully. However one has to feel that to reduce the number of teams at the finals would be regressive; All the AFC can, and must do is work with the various associations in the region and try and raise the bar in terms of performances.
Sadly the same is true of the Asian Champions League. The group stages do not generate the interest that they should, as most of the big teams in the stronger leagues in Asia are almost always assured of progressing, because the weaker nations’ Champions are not good enough.
In the Asian Champions League 47 teams compete in the competition, many eliminated prior to the 32 team group stage. Yet those 47 places are not made up of the Champions of each of the 47 member associations of the Asian Football Confederation. Australia for example has three teams in that 47 when its league only has ten teams; nine in truth as Wellington Phoenix are part of Oceania and no one is sure if they would be allowed to participate should they qualify.
Surely the AFC would be better served to make this tournament one purely just for the Champions at this stage in its development? Have two tiers of competition. The lesser league’s Champions play off to win a second tier competition and that in turn wins them a place in the “main event,” the Asian Champions League.
Something has to be done to try and stimulate these two major tournaments in the region. Many will claim that they are both young competitions and will take time to get into the psyche of fans, but this is simply not true. The Asian Champions League – although it was called the Asian Champion Club Tournament in a previous life started in 1967. It folded in 1971 due to a lack of professionalism and was restarted again in 1985/86 as the Asian Club Championship, and in 2002 became the Asian Champions League. It has been around for a while in different guises and formats, but has it still not managed to capture the public’s full attention?
The Asian Cup commenced in 1956. It has been going for over 50 years, but even within Asia you can ask people which nation won which tournament an in what year and will struggle to find someone who knows. It should come as no surprise that in 15 tournaments Japan has won four, Saudi Arabia and Iran three each and South Korea two. Three of last year’s World Cup qualifiers have won nine of the 15 tournaments. Only Israel – who no longer compete under AFC – Iraq and Kuwait have been other nations to win the cup.
Iraq won in 2007, but you have to go back to 1980 to find another country outside of the four main winners to have lifted the cup. Which many may claim means that development is the issue. Yet is it?
In Europe, with their UEFA European Championship the dominance is similar, where Germany and Spain have been victorious on three occasions each and France twice. Their competition is four years younger than the Asian Cup, so there have only been 14 tournaments and eight have been won by three nations. However the remaining six competitions have been won by six different nations. Yet like Asia, Greece won in 2004 and one has to go back to 1992 to see a nation outside of France, Spain or Germany lifting the cup; Denmark being the victors that year.
So maybe it is nothing to do with development, maybe it is the way of the footballing world. However one cannot help feeling that the Asian Cup is still lacking something to capture the imagination and pull everyone in. The question is what is that something?