Football’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup will take place from January 7 to 29 in Qatar. There is special interest around the world after organizer Qatar was surprisingly named the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup last month.
The official Asian Cup logo
The defending champions Iraq had surprised everyone by winning the 2007 Asian Cup finals 1-0 against Saudi Arabia in Jakarta. That tournament was co-hosted by four Southeast Asian nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, who this time will not be participating in the Asian Cup.
Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa is part of the Japan squad for the Asian Cup
Complicated qualifying process
The qualifying process for the Asian Cup is rather complicated. The top three nations from the last Asian Cup, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, were qualified directly along with its host Qatar. India and North Korea qualified as the 2008 and 2010 champions of the AFC Challenge Cup, Asia’s second-tier national team competition, while the remaining 10 nations went through the continental qualifiers.
The opening match will see host Qatar take on Uzbekistan, while China and Kuwait are also part of an evenly poised Group A. Group B will see one of the tournament favorites Japan taking on Middle Eastern sides in heavyweight Saudi Arabia plus rising powers Jordan and Syria.
India's captain Baichung Bhutia is still injured
India back after decades
The biggest unknown is the Indian national team, who return to the Asian stage after a long absence and face tough opponents in Group C. Soccer expert Dhiman Sarkar from the Hindustan Times said, "The draw didn’t do us any favor. If you are clubbed with Australia, South Korea and Bahrain, two of the teams made it to the World Cup finals in South Africa last year and a third almost made it there and lost in the playoffs, then a developing football nation in Asia and a country that has gotten its passport to the Asian Cup through a tournament which is primarily for developing nations in the continent, then it couldn’t have gotten worse."
But the Indians have prepared as well as they could, said Sarkar. "You can’t do anything about injuries. And it would be unfortunate if some of those injured don’t really make it, and that includes the captain Baichung Bhutia."
Meanwhile in Group D, World Cuppers North Korea will have to prove their worth at Asian level against defending champions Iraq, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
South Korea's Ji-sung Park, left, scores a goal against Greece at the World Cup in South Africa
Australia, Japan and South Korea among the favorites
So who are the title favorites? "I think that there will be no big surprises," said Lutz Pfannenstiel. "Japan and South Korea will be up there but I think quality-wise Australia has the best team overall."
Other experts say a Middle Eastern side could use the home advantage and could cause an upset like Iraq did four years ago. Players such as Manchester United star Ji-Sung Park of South Korea, Japan’s Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Australian Tim Cahill of Everton FC could become the stars of this Asian Cup.
But the eyes of the football world will be on Qatar over the next three weeks to see how they host Asia’s premier football competition, the first real test for the Qataris.
Author: Arunava Chaudhuri
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein