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HomeSportsAsian Cup raises World Cup hopes for teams

Asian Cup raises World Cup hopes for teams

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AN Asian Cup that will be remembered for shocks and dramatic finishes has showcased the region’s strength in depth and raised hopes that its teams could reach new heights at the 2026 World Cup.

Eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are up for grabs for Asian Football Confederation sides at the expanded 48-team World Cup to be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Asian Cup in Qatar, which concluded on Saturday with the hosts beating Jordan in the final, suggests that the region’s traditional heavyweights now have some serious competition.

“Asian football has improved a lot,” South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in Doha. “The quality has risen dramatically over the last 15 years.”

His strongly fancied side were subsequently beaten 2-0 by Jordan in the semi-finals, while pre-tournament favourites Japan crashed out in the quarter-finals to Iran, who then lost to Qatar.

“All of the teams at the Asian Cup have a lot of quality and we have had difficult games because they are getting better,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu, whose team conceded at least one goal in every game.

Teams have mostly found success by playing positive, at tacking football, while games have generally been close.

The biggest margin of victory at the tournament was matching 4-0 wins for Australia and Jordan over Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively.

Notable successes have been Jordan, whose high-tempo attacking style made a mockery of their world ranking of 87 and debutants Tajikistan, who sailed through to the quarter-finals.

Hong Kong, the lowest-ranked team, were competitive despite losing all three games, giving Iran a real scare before going down 1-0.

Another so-called regional minnow, Malaysia, pulled off a famous 3-3 draw with South Korea.

Jurgen Klinsmann

South Korea skipper Son Heung min thought he had scored the winner from the spot in the 94th minute, only for Malaysia to grab the leveller in the 105th minute.

“They fought until the end,” said Son. “I was truly very pleased to see this for Asian football.” For all the progress, a few teams appear to be treading water, or even going backwards.

India and China both headed home without scoring a goal in their three games each.

Some of the goalkeeping has also been iffy at times and Japan, notably, badly lacked a reliable stopper.

Football writer Scott McIntyre, of The Asian Game website, believes the World Cup expansion gives Asia’s smaller nations a reason to invest more in the sport.

“If you’re one of the handful of Asian nations that have consistently gone to the World Cup, those nations have invested in their domestic leagues,” he told AFP.

“For others, it’s like, ‘What’s the motivation if you’re an Uzbekistan or a Jordan?’

“You think with four spots, you’re never going to get to the World Cup.”

Asian teams had some notable success in the group phase of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Japan beat Germany and Spain, and Saudi Arabia stunned eventual champion Argentina.

Saudi Arabia is throwing money at football and is set to host the 2034 World Cup.

However, South Korea’s run to the semi-finals in 2002 as co-hosts remains the region’s best World Cup performance, and no AFC team has gone further than the last 16 since.

Teams from other confederations beyond Europe and South America have done better, with Morocco giving Africa its first World Cup semi-finalist in 2022.

Hussein Ammouta, the Moroc can coach of Jordan, believes the key to improving national sides is to have their players in the major European leagues.

Of his Jordan squad, only Mousa Al-Tamari at Montpelli er currently does that, but Ammouta sees a growing number of Asian players good enough to follow suit.

“Asian football has devel oped so much and is pro ducing all those quality players that are being sought by big European teams,” he said on the eve of the final.

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