The new year is beginning with a bang in Asia, with the 2011 AFC Asian Cup set to kick off in Qatar on Friday. The tournament, which is celebrating its 15th edition, lasts for 22 days, during which time 16 of the continent's top teams will battle it out for Asian football’s most coveted prize.
Six past winners, including defending champions Iraq, feature prominently the line-up, three of which - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan – are bidding to become the first nation to win the tournament on four separate occasions. Hosts Qatar enter the championship looking to make history, while the likes of the United Arab Emirates and China PR are desperate to improve on previous runners-up finishes. Ahead of the big kick-off, FIFA.com caught up with some of the coaches involved to hear their views on the upcoming tournament.
East Asians aim high
Japan and Korea Republic made history in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ by progressing to the second round for the first time on foreign soil. With their status among the Asian Cup favourites strengthened by these unprecedented achievements, the sides’ respective new coaches are aiming high ahead of the continental showpiece.
“We have showed what we are capable of during the World Cup,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni told FIFA.com. “We are only second to Australia among Asian teams in the FIFA World Ranking and this reflects our strengths. Our ambition is to prove that we are Asia’s top team.”
Pitted in the group stage against nemesis Saudi Arabia, the team at whose hands they bowed out in the semi-finals four years ago, Japan know that they cannot expect a straightforward passage to the knockout stage. Nonetheless, their Italian coach is approaching the tournament in confident mood. As he said: “Japan are a well organised side and our fighting spirit is second to none.”
Also brimming with confidence is Korea Republic coach Cho Kwang-Rae, who has vowed end his nation’s long wait for a third Asian title. Despite being one of the continent’s most successful sides, the Taeguk Warriors have failed to add to their successes in the tournament’s first two editions in 1956 and 1960, something which Cho attributed to a lack of preparation and desire.
“During those days I think we didn’t put the priority on the Asian Cup,” said the 56-year-old. “We were more interested in the World Cup. But after the Middle East and Japan began to dominate, I think it’s time for us to focus on the Asian Cup again. Our goal, therefore, is to win the championship for the first time in 51 years and bring the trophy back home.”
For Cho, the biggest challenge in group stage is sure to come from Australia, with whom Korea Republic clash on 14 January in their second game. As he said: “The Socceroos have so many experienced players from European leagues and I hear that all of the foreign-based players are coming, so they will be at their full strength.”
Having figured in Korea Republic’s ill-fated 1980 campaign, when they reached the final only to unexpectedly lose out 3-0 to Kuwait, Cho stressed that no-one will be underestimating their other group opponents, Bahrain and India. “We’ve never faired well against Bahrain,” he said. “Unlike the other sides from the Middle East, the Bahrainis are more combative than skillful, with strong mentality and physique.”
West Asians look to rebuild
In West Asia, the aim will be to bounce back from a dreadful year in which they failed to provide a single representative at South Africa 2010. However, with the Asian Cup being staged in their region, hopes are high that lost credibility can be restored.
The first coach to openly target the title was Iran’s Afshin Ghotbi, whose side won their third and last Asian trophy on home soil back in 1976. “Football plays a huge role in Iran,” the 46-year-old told FIFA.com. “Victory at the Asian Cup would provide inspiration for Iranian people across the world.”
Ambitious though he is, Guus Hiddink’s former assistant does not expect easy group games against UAE, Korea DPR and holders Iraq. He said: “We can take nothing for granted because the gap between Asian teams has narrowed. Iraq are familiar opponents and I expect a classic game against them.”
One of Ghotbi’s rivals, UAE coach Srecko Katanec, has also been speaking to FIFA.com about the prospect of defying expectations in a formidable section. “Obviously we are in a very tough group,” said the former Slovenia and Macedonia boss. “On paper we are not the favourites even in the group but we will strive game by game to progress to the second round. Then we will have no pressure and anything will become possible.”