Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed bin Hammam says the Asian Cup next year will be tougher than ever for the traditional powerhouse teams after Iraq's upset victory in 2007.
The Socceroos, who struggled in their tournament debut in 2007, have their work cut out in a tough Group C that also includes Bahrain and minnows India. At a glitzy draw at the Aspire Dome on Friday that culminated 21 months of qualifying, Japan were thrown alongside all-Gulf opposition, with Syria and Jordan making up Group B. Defending champions Iraq will take on neighbour Iran, North Korea and UAE while hosts Qatar are in Group A with China, Kuwait and Uzbekistan.
"Iraq's win in the 2007 edition has reshaped Asian football like never before," said Bin Hammam. "No longer can the traditional powers of the East and West take their places for granted. The new teams are ambitious and hungry for success. And all this bodes well for the fans."
Australian team technical director Han Berger admitted they face an uphill task in the January flagship event. "It is not an easy group, but then none of them are," he said. "No game in this type of tournament is going to be easy."
He expressed fears that some of his European-based players, like Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, may face opposition from their clubs to play with domestic seasons in full flight. "Maybe it will be a problem. I'm Dutch so I know European clubs don't like to lose their players for tournaments like this. We will try to have our strongest team possible," he said. Australia will also have a new coach, with Pim Verbeek already announcing he will step down after the FIFA World Cup.
Tough test for India
India, who have qualified for the first time in 24 years, look like being thr group whipping boys and coach Bob Houghton is under no illusions about the task ahead. "It's probably the toughest group there is," said the Englishman. "We've had good preparations so far, but it's a big ask. We need to improve, but you never know what might happen."
Japan won the tournament in 1992, 2000 and 2004 and plan to add to the tally in January. "We aspire to be in the final," said their technical director Hiromi Hara. "It's amazing that we have all Gulf nations, but I am glad we avoided South Korea and Australia," he added. "Who is the toughest team in our group? Well, all Asian teams are strong nowadays so I can't single one out."
The tournament opens at the 50,000 capacity Khalifa Stadium and will be played in January rather than July to avoid the searing summer heat in the Qatari capital. The last tournament was hailed as a turning point for Asian football and despite Berger's concerns, organisers are confident there will be no problem with European clubs releasing their top Asian stars.
"FIFA regulations say that players must be released by their clubs to play the Asian Cup," said AFC Vice President and Asian Cup organising committee chairman Zhang Jilong. "We don't foresee any problems."
Five stadiums will be used -- Khalifa Stadium, Al Sadd Stadium, Al Gharafa Stadium, Al Rayyan Stadium and Qatar Sports Club Stadium.