Asia’s footballing finest all set to kick things off in China

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Asia’s footballing finest all set to kick things off in China

The recently completed Euro 2004 football championships took soccer-mad Asia by storm. In Indonesia, a national election was disrupted when officials arrived late to polling stations after watching the tournament’s final the night before.
Starting today, Asian soccer fans can cheer on their own, as the European Championship’s Asian counterpart, the Asian Cup, kicks off in China.
Whether enthusiasm for Euro 2004 will transfer to the Asian Cup remains to be seen, but organizers hope that staging it in Asia’s biggest and fastest growing soccer market will boost its profile.
The Asian Cup has more than 45 years of history but has traditionally played a very second fiddle to bigger international soccer tournaments such as the European Championship and the World Cup, even in the eyes of Asians themselves.
Sixteen teams are divided by four for the group stage, each team playing the other once. The top two teams from each group advance to the knock-out rounds.
South Korea won the first two titles in 1956 and 1960. It has reached the final three times since then, the last time in 1988.
The favorites for this year’s tournament include defending-champion Japan, South Korea, Iran and tournament hosts China.
But one of the more intriguing teams at the tournament is Iraq. The national team qualified despite being forced to play all its matches on the road, only to have its German coach resign two weeks ago, citing security fears. The Iraqi Football Association then decided to send a different team, the under-23 Olympic squad, to represent the country in China.
Here’s a look at some of the favorites:

Korea’s squad contains many stars from the 2002 World Cup. The loss of experienced defender and captain Yoo Sang-chul to the Olympic team, however, is a big blow to the backline. Lack of preparation time for new Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere is also a major concern.
Korea has a lot to prove after its World Cup success and subsequent drop in form. Yet danger lurks in the quarterfinals; it must play one of the top two teams in Group D, likely to be Japan or Iran.
Anything less than the semi-finals will be viewed as an abject failure.
Korea plays Jordan on July 19, the UAE on July 23 and Kuwait on July 27.
Fearless prediction: Another appearance in the final, but the Asian Cup title drought will continue.

Brazilian coach Zico is confident his team can retain its title, despite being without his first-choice team.
Injuries will prevent two of Japan’s most famous footballers, two-time Asian player of the year Hidetoshi Nakata and Fulham’s Junichi Inamoto, from appearing in the tournament.
Recent impressive results in Europe, including a victory over the Czech Republic and a draw with England, should give Japan confidence going in.
Fearless prediction: In the final matchup everyone on the peninsula is hoping for, Japan edges Korea.

Iran’s heyday in this tournament was in the 1970s, yet it remains a perennial threat.
In an unfortunate development this time around, Vahid Hashemian, a recent Bayern Munich signing and one of Iran’s best players, continues his refusal to play for the national team.
If the Asian Cup has a glamour match in the group stages, it would be Iran’s July 28 encounter with Japan. The teams will be vying for top spot in the group to avoid meeting Korea in the quarterfinals.
Fearless prediction: Second in group stage, and a quarterfinal loss to Korea.
China will have both the pressures and advantages of playing this tournament on home soil. Dutch coach Arie Hann is guarding against overconfidence, with his team being placed in a relatively easy group. If China is going to shed its “choker” label, this is the place to do it.
Fearless prediction: Massive home support allows China to squeak into the semifinals.

by Grant Surridge
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