The 2015 Asian Cup has begun, and is today in its third day. This is the first time that Australia has hosted Asia’s biggest football tournament, and indeed it is only the third Asian Cup that the Socceroos have played in after Australia officially joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006. This Asian Cup illustrates Australia’s deepening relations with Asia, and in particular how Australia’s engagement with Asia is beginning to move beyond mere economic transactions to include relations such as cultural relations.
Besides the entertaining and increasingly high quality football that Asia increasingly showcases, it will be interesting to see just how much Australians acknowledge the Asian Cup and recognise Australia’s place in Asia. As the thoughtful Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, said in the late 1990s: ‘in Australia’s case, the fundamental problem is that while we may have come to mouth the sentiment of belonging to the region [of Asia], we have done too little to belong in human terms or to make the necessary cultural and intellectual adjustment. And that is unforgivable, and for as long as we continue in this mode we will always be outsiders, however much we may participate in the formal institutions of the region [such as APEC]’. Australia’s neighbourhood is Asia, with by far most of Australia’s economic trade occurring with Asia instead of other regions such as Europe. And the Australian government also acknowledges the importance of geography for Australia’s present and future, with the Australian government producing a white paper (that is a government study) in 2012 titled ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, that clearly stated in detail that Australia’s future is in Asia. The white paper pronounced: ‘our nation also has the strength that comes from a long history of engagement with countries in Asia. Australia’s relationships in our region are strong and robust, including with Asian nations like China, Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). But in this Asian century we must enter a new phase of deeper and broader engagement’.
So it will be interesting to see to what extent Australia rises to the occasion with the 2015 Asian Cup and engages with Asia, and to see just how much Australians get on board with the Asian Cup, and get on board with Asia in general.
On the football, I would say there are two clear favourites to win the 2015 Asian Cup, namely the two finalists of the last Asian Cup: Japan and Australia. Two dark horses that shouldn’t be overlooked are Korea (South Korea) and Iran. And I expect China to make a decent showing at this Asian Cup, as China looks to improve its national team after a somewhat disappointing recent past for China’s national football team.
The Socceroos are keen to win their first Asian Cup, which would be the first major trophy that Australia’s men’s football team have won (but not the first major trophy that Australia have won in football, as Australia’s women’s football team, the Matildas, won the 2010 women’s Asian Cup). And with the tournament being hosted on Australian soil, the players will be extra motivated to prevail. The coach Ange Postecoglou has been in charge for a little over a year now, and he’s now starting to have the team playing the type of football he wants (that is, the possession style of football that made Postecoglou famous and successful in the A-League). However, it remains to be seen whether the recently rejuvenated Socceroos are ready for success, and I believe the team’s defending is a particular weakness that the Socceroos will have to sort out (the defenders haven’t played many games together, so the defence could lack the required cohesion for team success).
Players to keep an eye out for include Massimo Luongo, who starred in the Socceroos’ Asian Cup opening match in Melbourne (as one of the spectators at AAMI Park, I can say Luongo definitely looks like a very promising attacking midfielder). Also the goalkeeper Mat Ryan is a very well-rounded keeper, who’s a star in the making. And I’m tipping two other up and coming attackers, namely Tommy Oar and Nathan Burns, to make an impression at this Asian Cup as well.
The neck and neck favourites to win the Asian Cup with Australia in my opinion, Japan are a truly brilliant football side, and play probably the most eye-catching football in Asia. With the best youth development system in Asia, Japan has excellent depth, and play a very good technical and possession based brand of football. Two issues that face the Blue Samurai are playing matches outside of Japan and some controversy surrounding their new coach. On the former point, Japan (like every Asian country really) had a bad 2014 World Cup and failed to win a single match, and fired their coach shortly after. And on the latter point their new manager Javier Aguirre (who took over after the World Cup) was accused of match fixing just a few weeks before the Asian Cup started, and the accusation took the Japanese media by storm. Whether there’s any turbulence still around that will weaken the performances of Japan remains to be seen.
Players to keep an eye out for are without a doubt Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. Both are world class players, with Honda playing at AC Milan and Kagawa playing at Borussia Dortmund. Either of these players could be the decisive factor to inspire Japan to Asian Cup glory. Shinji Okazaki is another exciting Japanese player playing in Germany, who could be ready to make a big impression this Asian Cup.
One would be a fool to overlook Korea. With talented players at respectable clubs across Europe and Asia, Korea has the talent to go far in the tournament, and I’d say Korea is very likely to at least make the semi-finals. And as is always true with cup football, anything can happen once teams reach the semis, so Korea winning their semi and then going on to get that all important additional win in the final is a distinct possibility. The Achilles’ heel for The Reds is probably the team’s inconsistency, which was on show at the 2014 World Cup, where Korea turned in a poor performance against Algeria in their second group game that resulted in a 4-2 loss and effectively bundled Korea out of the tournament. So especially once Korea reaches the knock-out stages (and I’d say that it is almost a certain bet that they will), the team must not drop their performance levels to really contest the 2015 Asian Cup.
Players to keep an eye out for are captain Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min. Ki is a very impressive and composed midfielder who plays for Premier League side Swansea, whereas Son is an eye-catching and free scoring winger that’s been impressing in the Bundesliga for the last couple of years. Also Koo Ja-cheol is also a skilful midfielder worth watching, who’s regularly capable of threatening goal.
The football mad country of Iran must be considered contenders, if only dark horses, to win the Asian Cup in my opinion. Iran looked like a well organised side at the 2014 World Cup, and under coach Carlos Queiroz Iran was very convincing in qualification for this Asian Cup, winning 5 out of their 6 qualification games, and scoring 18 goals while only conceding 5. Whilst Iran were free scoring in Asian Cup qualification, against tougher opponents, such as the opponents Iran played at the 2014 World Cup, Iran has struggled to score lots of goals. So if Iran comes up against a tough opponent in the Asian Cup that can turn the match into a goal-scoring contest (such as Japan), Iran might come up short and their Asian Cup campaign could come to an end.
Players to keep an eye out for are captain Javad Nekounam and striker Reza Ghoochannejhad (nicknamed ‘Gucci’). Nekounam is a classy midfielder who can create and score goals, and a long-time leader in Iran’s national team. Gucci is a lively and capable goal-scorer for Iran, who has several years of experience playing in Europe, including multiple years in the Netherlands. Another player worth looking out for is pacey winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who’s a young and up and coming player who’s making a big impression in the Netherlands.
It is probably too soon for China to be seriously suggested to be a contender for the Asian Cup. China has failed to get out of the group stage of the Asian Cup in the previous two editions of the tournament (China did however finish as runners up when they hosted the tournament in 2004). In this Asian Cup though I believe China will get out of the group stage, with Team Dragon looking convincing in their 1-0 win against Saudi Arabia. So with an ideal start to the tournament, and the players looking very determined to get some good results at this Asian Cup, I can see China having a good Asian Cup, with the team improving on the rather unimpressive results of recent times. However I believe China will likely go out in the quarter-finals, with perhaps a lack of lethal finishing being the key weakness that will see the team fall short in this tournament.
Players to keep an eye out for are captain Zheng Zhi and ‘China’s Maradona’ (中国馬勒當拿) Wu Lei. Zheng is a skilful and composed leader in midfielder, whilst Wu is an attacking midfielder who’s capable of scoring goals, and has long shown potential to become a top footballer. Yu Hai is another lively attacking player worth watching this Asian Cup as well.
So as the advertising slogan says: ‘unite for the Asian Cup’! And unite for some entertaining football as well.