An Asian Cup that will be remembered for shocks and dramatic finishes has showcased the region’s strength in depth and raised hopes its teams could reach new heights at the 2026 World Cup.
Eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are up for grabs for Asian Football Confederation sides at the expanded 48-team World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The Asian Cup in Qatar, which concludes with Saturday’s final between the hosts and Jordan, suggests that the region’s traditional heavyweights now have some serious competition.
“Asian football has improved a lot,” South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in Doha.
“The quality has risen over the last 10, 15 years dramatically.”
His strongly fancied side were subsequently beaten 2-0 by Jordan in the semi-finals while pre-tournament favourites Japan crashed out in the quarter-finals to Iran, who then lost to Qatar.
“All of the teams at the Asian Cup have a lot of quality and we have had difficult games because they are getting better,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu, whose team conceded at least one goal in every game.
Teams have mostly found success by playing positive, attacking football, while games have generally been close.
The biggest margin of victory at the tournament was matching 4-0 wins for Australia and Jordan over Indonesia and Malaysia respectively.
Notable successes have been Jordan, whose high-tempo attacking style made a mockery of their world ranking of 87, and debutants Tajikistan, who reached the quarter-finals.
Hong Kong, the lowest-ranked team, were competitive despite losing all three games, giving Iran a real scare before going down 1-0.
Another so-called regional minnow, Malaysia, pulled off a famous 3-3 draw with South Korea.
South Korea skipper Son Heung-min thought he had scored the winner from the spot in the 94th minute, only for Malaysia to grab the leveller in the 105th minute.
“They fought until the end,” said Son. “I was very pleased to see this for Asian football.”
For all the progress, a few teams appear to be treading water or going backwards.
India and China both headed home without scoring a goal in their three games each.
Some of the goalkeeping has also been iffy at times and Japan, notably, badly lacked a reliable stopper.
Football writer Scott McIntyre, of The Asian Game website, believes the World Cup expansion gives Asia’s smaller nations a reason to invest more in the sport.
“If you’re one of the handful of Asian nations that have consistently gone to the World Cup, those nations have invested in their domestic leagues,” he told AFP.
“For others, it’s like, ‘What’s the motivation if you’re an Uzbekistan or a Jordan?’
“You think with four spots, you’re never going to get to the World Cup.”
Asian teams had some notable success in the group phase of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Japan beat Germany and Spain, and Saudi Arabia stunned eventual champions Argentina.
Saudi Arabia are throwing money at football and are set to host the 2034 World Cup.
However, South Korea’s run to the semi-finals in 2002 as co-hosts remains the region’s best World Cup performance, and no AFC team has gone further than the last 16 since.
Teams from other confederations beyond Europe and South America have done better, with Morocco giving Africa its first World Cup semi-finalist in 2022.
Hussein Ammouta, the Moroccan coach of Jordan, believes the key to improving national sides is to have their players in the major European leagues.
Of his Jordan squad, only Mousa Al-Tamari at Montpellier currently does that, but Ammouta sees a growing number of Asian players good enough to follow suit.
“Asian football has developed so much and is producing those quality players that are being sought by big European teams,” he said on the eve of the final.
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