This Friday, the 2012 AFC Futsal Championship gets underway in Dubai, with 16 teams competing to prevent holders Iran from successfully defending their title. And while winning the week-long tournament is every side’s top priority there is another prize at stake: each of the four semi-finalists will also book themselves a berth at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Thailand 2012. takes a look at the favourites to qualify for Thailand 2012 and the less-fancied sides that might spring a surprise.

The favourites
Top of the bill are Iran, the ten-time Asian champions and front-runners to retain their crown. Iran boast a strong squad captained by the formidable Vahid Shamsaei, three-time Asian Futsal Player of the Year and top scorer at the continental tournament on no less than seven occasions.

Important though Shamsaei is, the Iranians are by no means a one-man team. Indeed, he missed the last edition of the AFC showpiece yet his country still won, with team-mate Mohammad Taheri stepping up to claim the best player award and top the scoring charts with 13 goals.

It is Japan who would appear to pose the biggest threat to Iran, particularly as they are the only team thus far to have broken their monopoly, having beaten Shamsaei and Co in the 2006 semi-finals before going on to win the competition.

Given that neither of these two teams have failed to reach the semi-finals since the inaugural AFC Futsal Championship in 1999, the heavyweight duo will also be heavily backed to repeat the feat this time. But should events follow the form book, who will occupy the remaining two slots in the last four?

Last year’s runners-up Uzbekistan seem a good bet. Beaten finalists on three occasions at the continental showpiece, they will be hoping to rubber-stamp that pedigree and make the finals of the FIFA Futsal World Cup for the first time in their history.

Finally, there is Thailand, the hosts of this year’s global competition. Having made three previous appearances at the world finals, they will looking for a solid performance in the AFC event to stand them in good stead for the challenges ahead.

The dark horses
After finishing fourth at the last two editions of the AFC Futsal Championship, China PR will certainly believe they have a shot at qualifying for Thailand 2012, if not winning the AFC tournament outright.

Kyrgyzstan must also be in with a shout. They reached the semi-finals in Asia three times in a row – in 2005, 2006 and 2007 - but to date have never progressed further. Japan proved to be their nemesis in the last eight in 2008 and 2010, beating them 4-0 on both occasions to prevent them reaching the semi-finals.

Lebanon, for their part, will be hoping to emulate the example of the Lebanese national team, who have reached the final round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The futsal squad are certainly aiming high, bringing in Spanish coach Paco Araujo in their bid to clinch what would be a debut FIFA Futsal World Cup appearance.

The quote
“The opening game is the most important for the UAE team. We have to go all out for the win, because anything less than three points will make things very difficult for us,” UAE coach Padu, ahead of his side’s debut appearance at an AFC Futsal Championship.

The stat
5 – The number of teams taking part in the 2012 AFC Futsal Championship that have previously appeared in the finals of a FIFA Futsal World Cup. These sides are China, Chinese Taipei, Iran, Japan and Thailand. It is also the number of times Iran have featured in a FIFA Futsal World Cup, with their best result a fourth-place finish back at Hong Kong 1992.

2012 AFC Futsal Championship Groups:
Group A: UAE, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan
Group B: Japan, Chinese Taipei, Tajikistan, Lebanon
Group C: Iran, Australia, Korea Rep., Qatar
Group D: China, Indonesia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan