Asia's passion for futsal will soon be reignited across the world's biggest continent when the 2008 AFC Futsal Championship is staged in Thailand from 11 to 18 May. This year's continental indoor competition also serves as the qualifying tournament for the FIFA Futsal World Cup Brazil 2008, with 16 teams vying for four berths at the global showpiece, which will be played in Brazil from 30 September to 19 October.
The participants are currently limbering up before battling it out in four groups of four, from which the top two teams in each section will advance to the quarter-finals. For the winners of the last eight ties, the prize is a guaranteed place at Brazil 2008, and the lure of rubbing shoulders with the world's best is seen as a major incentive by Adisak Benjasiriwan, chairman of the event's Local Organising Committee (LOC).
"It goes without doubt that this futsal championship
will attract greater interest and attention because the top four
teams will qualify for the Futsal World Cup," Benjasiriwan
said. "The indoor game is getting more popular in Asia and the
national teams are improving fast, so the competition is going to
Iran target title No9
Benjasiriwan's Thailand are grouped with Indonesia, Iraq and most notably Kyrgyzstan, whose semi-final finish in last year's competition shocked everyone.
As the LOC chief admitted: "Kyrgyzstan proved they are better than us last year while Iraqi players are individually skillful. We played Indonesia a number of times but I think this is a tough group for us."
Despite Benjasiriwan's caution, Hossein Shams, head coach of defending champions Iran, rates the hosts highly.
"I think we will meet Japan in the semi-final while Thailand will play Uzbekistan in the other semi," said Shams, whose Iran have strongly established their status as Asia's 'futsal kings' by winning eight of the past nine continental championships. "Should both of us prevail, then there will be a Iran-Thailand final."
While Shams' charges are determined to win their ninth Asian crown, they must keep wary of group rivals of China, Tajikistan and Kuwait, all capable of mounting a serious challenge against them.
"China are a good team and Tajikistan are not so weak," Sham continued. "Plus, Kuwait have been in the quarter-finals several times before."
The biggest hurdle Iran will face is likely to come in the shape of Japan, who became the only team to have dethroned the 'kings' when they sensationally toppled Iran in the final in the 2006 AFC Futsal Championship under Brazilian coach Sapo.
While a place in the last eight should be within Japan's grasp, Sapo is simply targeting a first-place finish in a group that also features Australia, Chinese Taipei and Turkmenistan. "Thailand will be aiming to go through to the quarter-finals finishing on top of their group, so we need to top our section to avoid a clash with the hosts," he said.
Elsewhere, Uzbekistan, beaten by Iran in last year's semi-finals, are expected to build on the achievement of reaching the last four in 2007. Pitted against the likes of Korea Republic, Lebanon and Malaysia, they are the undisputed favorites to top Group C.
2008 AFC Futsal Championship *11-18 May
- Group A: Indonesia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand
Group B: Australia, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Turkmenistan
Group C: Korea Republic, Lebanon, Malaysia, Uzbekistan
Group D: Iran, China, Kuwait, Tajikistan