Asian Cup Stepping Up

2015_AFC_Asian_Cup_opening_match_Australia_Kuwait,_9_January_2015_(11)It’s been a big month for football fans around the world. Both the Asian Cup and the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) have concluded this month, but the two tournaments have left two very different tastes in the mouths of football fans around the world. The two tournaments take place in what could easily (and ignorantly) be regarded as football’s periphery considering the dominance of Europe and the Americas on the world stage, but the reality is that these are some of the most passionately watched and supported events in world sport. But after their 2015 editions, and it may be that the tables have finally turned in Asia’s favour from the once preferred AFCON.

There’s a few of reasons for this. Asian football is not particularly well represented at the big clubs of the world, particularly when compared to the talent representing African football nations. It’s been easy to predict in the past who could win the Asian cup based on their sheer star-power over the last few tournaments: Japan’s dominance over the last twenty years is testament to that (accepting of course Iraq’s miraculous victory in 2007).

But in 2015 it was a different story. Local Asian based talent was one of the key drivers of success in Australia. The U.A.E for instance stunned Japan in the quarter finals with a squad comprised entirely of domestic players. A host of A-League players, notably Spiranovic and Juric were crucial to Australia’s overall victory; so too were Iraq’s largely home based squad in their fourth placed finish, an extra feat considering the country’s current domestic situation.

The benefit of this is that Asian players come to the tournament with  both nothing to lose and all to gain – to play for one’s country is a crowning feat in Asia, contrasted with the often ‘reluctance’ with which African players return to play in the AFCON. With all to play for, to use a cliché, nothing gets left on the park. This is perhaps why the tournaments group stage finished without a draw, as teams were compelled to attack at all costs rather than sit back and defend in order to preserve reputation or a draw.

Comparatively, during the African Cup of nations this year – which suffers from being held too often, with many teams housing too much expectation not to lose – there were a total of  13 draws out of 24 group games, many of them 1-1 or 0-0; a dour result for a tournament full of star-studded teams.

For the fans, there’s also the element of mystery surrounding most of the teams who came to play in the Asian Cup. It’s exciting for the fans who really don’t know what to expect prior to a game, and reminiscent of the old pre-70’s world cup days before the game was globalised, and before scouts and media pundits alike knew everything about the opposition. These were the sorts of tournaments where unknowns like Pele could shine – though drawing comparison with tournament top scorer Ali Mabkhout in 2015  with Pele’s effect in Sweden 1958 World Cup may be a stretch. But the beauty of not quite knowing what to expect represents football at its core, and is a joy that the Asian cup supplied in buckets this year.

Outside of the final, the African Cup of Nations meanwhile was a bland affair where the negative talking points were larger than the positive. The once preferred tournament is ceding ground quickly to the once derided Asian tournament, which looks to be further cementing the position of Asian Football in the global context.