Preceding the other big international events, such as the Australian Open tennis and the African Cup of Nations, to kick-off the year 2015 is the 16th edition of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Asian Cup hosted by first-time host Australia.
With the tournament kick-off on the 9th of January the countdown to the opening game, Australia against Kuwait in Melbourne, is in its twilight. Provisional squads have been announced, managers chopped and new ones put in place, and a rather dreadfully ugly wombat called nutmeg announced as the overseer of tournament spirit.
Whereas the 2015 Asian Cup sees the first foray onto the major tournament international scene for stateless nation Palestine, for Nutmeg it’s actually his second, having also been the mascot for as 1999 Women’s World Cup, although he has had a trans-species operation from a sly handsome fox to a badly colour-coordinated dressed wombat.
However, with mascots there is always the inevitable reflection on ‘is it worse than…’ and in this list of terrible mascots Nutmeg is clearer not the worse, although I maintain that Gunnersaurus should not be anywhere near that list.
Enough about mascots; the inaugural international tournament of 2015 is Asia’s largest sporting event and will be the biggest football event Australia has ever hosted. The continental football extravaganza will showcase 32 matches in 23 days involving the top 16 national football teams from across Asia and the continent’s most talented players.
The Bundesliga’s large congregation of AFC stars including Robbie Kruse, Son Hueng-Min, Shinji Kagawa and many more will enjoy their domestic campaign’s winter break in the Australian heat playing tournament football, the perfect cure for the cold European temperatures.
These stars and their compatriots will be eager to make up for each of the AFC’s World Cup representatives confederation performed below expectations at last summer’s finals. Nations Iran, South Korea, Australia and Japan collectively only managed to pick up 3 points.
Australia, who had the toughest of World Cup draws, performed with the most spirit and industry of AFC nations, but have since suffered a big slump down the FIFA rankings. Australia enters the tournament at an all-time low of 102 in the much publicised but relatively unimportant FIFA rankings. In fact Australia may see it as an ironic victory over the much-hated organisation that denied them the chance to hold the world’s greatest sporting event in 2022.
Recent friendly defeats to the actual 2022 World Cup host and recent 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations champions Qatar, and Asian Cup rivals and reigning champs Japan hasn’t helped the slide, but rather just added to the intense pressure already on the host nation.
If the Aussies can deal with the pressure and come through their opening two group A fixtures. The opener against the less fancied Kuwaitis, whom were one of those nations to replace a coach after Brazilian and a former Asian Cup winning coach with Iraq in 2007, Jorvan Viera oversaw the team’s poor performance at the November Gulf of Nations Cup, which included a five-nil defeat to Australia’s 2nd opponents.
And that is the challenge of trying to beat Oman’s former Premier League goalkeeper Al Habsi. The final group game is a tough, intriguing and also a potential final against South Korea to possibly decide the group winner as well as gauging the quality of both nations.
The southern nation on the Korean peninsula will have their own measure of pressure to deal with; greeted with a shower of toffees on their return home from Brazil, which was followed by the mutual departure of legend and coach Hong Myung-bo.
Replacement coach, West Germany and Real Madrid legend, Uli Stielike spent six years coaching the national teams youth teams between 2000-2006. This period saw the re-emergence of German football from the Euro 2000 debacle and of course ‘night in Munich’ 5-1 defeat at the hands of England. It is this re-emergence as well as the style of play that seems to suit the Korean player as they continue to succeed in the Bundesliga.
The winners will qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup and become the second team to join host nation Russia alongside World Cup champions Germany. This is of course seems very far away but the prestige that comes with being one of the seven continental champions shouldn’t be overlooked.
That’s for the winner, for the loser we have seen with the spate of post-World Cup, post-Gulf Cup and other pre-tournament sackings and replacements that job stability in the international game on the continent of Asia is anything but stable and that could be the case for the nation from ‘Down Under’ after the 16th Asian Cup.
No surprises here, Australia and South Korea to go through and then a draw in the final group game between the two. That means the margin of victory against especially Kuwait will determine the group winner. I’m backing South Korea and Son Hueng-Min to provide the goals in this group and qualify in 1st.