The 2019 AFC Asian Cup is gearing up for the semifinals and finals of the tournament this week, held in four host cities in the United Arab Emirates. The AFC Asian Cup is a quadriennal tournament organized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), FIFA’s continental confederation responsible for football (soccer) governance and competitions in Asia. The competition is the equivalent of the UEFA European Championship in Europe, and the Copa América in South America.
This year, the AFC Asian Cup has drawn more Western attention than ever for several reasons. First, it falls directly at the height of the Premier League season, and Premier League fans have realized its large influence on upcoming fixtures and standings. For example, Tottenham Hotspur fans will notice the absence of Son Heung-min, a star striker for Tottenham and the crown jewel of South Korea’s national team. Playing in the Cup this past month has meant his ill-timed absence from the Premier League.
Perhaps more obviously, the Asian Cup directly follows the success of the Japanese and South Korean national men’s teams this past summer in Russia. At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, only five of the 32 teams hailed from the Asian continental federation: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. With the exception of Japan, all fell third and fourth in the group stages. Only Japan went on to the round of 16, losing to Belgium in a heart-stopping 3-2 match. Belgium eventually lost to champions France 1-0 in the semifinals.
Although South Korea did not advance past the group stage, it produced perhaps the biggest upset of the entire tournament by defeating the reigning 2014 champions, Germany, in a dramatic 2-0 win. The loss plummeted Germany to the bottom of their group with the largest goal differential, eliminating them from the tournament. It simultaneously thrust the Mexican national team into second place in the group and into the round of 16. Fans took to the streets of Mexico City, ambushing the South Korean embassy, and producing viral memes of Mexican fans hoisting Korean fans on their shoulders. The eruption of celebrations in Mexico City following the South Korean goals may have been grander and more ecstatic than those from Korean fans.
While they did not appear at 2018 Russia, North Korea and China also played in the Asian Cup, although with less notable results. North Korea did not advance past the group stage, and instead left with two red cards and only one goal in its three games. Despite a comeback in their round of 16 match against Thailand, China lost to Iran in the quarterfinals. Losing to Iran is a particularly sore spot for Chinese football fans. They lost 1-0 in their previous meet-up in March 2017 in the 2018 World Cup qualifying rounds, the most-watched event of the year with over 31 million viewers.
Considering the World Cup performances, the upcoming semifinals are interesting pairings. On January 28, Iran will take on Japan in a match-up featuring the only two teams left that appeared at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The next day, the 2022 FIFA World Cup host, Qatar, will take on the current host of the tournament, the UAE. This match is particularly surprising considering both teams were not expected to advance to this stage. This past Friday, Qatar upset South Korea in a surprising 1-0 quarterfinals match, and the UAE advanced following their 1-0 win over Australia. By the books, this semi-final would be predicted to be South Korea vs. Australia, two teams who appeared in Russia and respectively hold eight and four other World Cup appearances. While the UAE has only one World Cup appearance at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Qatar will debut in 2022 as both host and team on the World Cup stage.
Beyond club and national team play, the Asian Cup also raises questions around the politics behind football mega-events. The Qatar vs. UAE match highlights the possibility of the two federations working together for 2022. While Qatar’s original bid for the 2022 World Cup planned the tournament based on a 32-team format, FIFA began to consider expanding the tournament to 48 teams in late 2018. The FIFA Congress had already approved an expanded 48-team tournament to begin in 2026, a crucial consideration in the voting process that led the “United” bid of the United States, Mexico, and Canada to victory.
Expanding Qatar 2022 to 48 teams, however, is a different story. Qatar’s original budget and plans for stadium construction were heavily criticized for excessive expenditure and human rights abuses. Calling for Qatar to now host 16 additional teams would only further strain their resources and invite further scrutiny. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has a solution: Qatar’s neighbors can help stage the tournament.
On January 2, Infantino advocated for a 48-team format at a sports conference and mentioned the possibility of Gulf states assisting in hosting. “If we can accommodate some of the neighboring countries in the gulf region, which are very close by, to host a few games in the World Cup this could be very beneficial for the region and the entire world,” said Infantino.
The day before Infantino’s remarks, the tournament director for the AFC Asian Cup Aref al-Awani announced that the UAE “would be willing to provide any help needed” to the 2022 hosts. Similar to Qatar supporting its 2022 bid with evidence of successfully hosting the 2006 Asian Games, the UAE can now point to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to promote itself as a capable partner for the 2022 World Cup.
Although Western football fandom tends to overlook other continental tournaments, Asia’s increasingly prominent role in international football cannot be ignored. Tournaments like the AFC Asian Cup further highlight the presence of Asian players in Western leagues, the skills and success of Asian national teams on the world stage, and the movement of sporting mega-events to this region. Football will inevitably have to adapt to accommodate Asia’s new seats at the table — or grow to catch up.