Spotlight on Qatar as World Cup hosts set for Asian Cup

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

DOHA - When Joseph Blatter, president of football’s controlling body FIFA, announced in Zurich that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup finals, many eyebrows were raised.

Not only will the oil-rich Gulf state become the smallest-ever country to showcase the world’s biggest sporting event, but Qatar’s national team has played only a minor role in world football.

Starting Friday through January 29, Qatar will have an early opportunity to convince at least some of the sceptics that FIFA made a wise choice when picking Qatar over the US and Australia as they host the Asian Cup for the second time in their history.

Prior to the announcement in Zurich, the showpiece of Asian international football would have generated very little interest outside the region - that is apart from the usual irritation that a tournament like the Asian Cup generates from European coaches who lose some of their regular players for a long period of time.

However, all of that has changed, and suddenly the Asian Cup will be closely followed by the worldwide football community.

Four years ago, Iraq caused a sensation when they beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 in a tense final in Jakarta. Tens of thousands in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country took to the streets to celebrate a historic victory that brought a respite - however short - from the troubles brought unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion and the civil war that followed.

This time, the Iraqis have received a very difficult draw and will be hard-pressed to repeat their success, as they have to face local rivals Iran, World Cup finalists North Korea and the United Arab Emirates in Group D.

The hosts Qatar will face Uzbekistan, China and Kuwait in Group A. Bora Milutinovic, who was in charge of China when they went to the semi-finals in 2000 and is now employed by the Qatar football association, believes that the hosts and China will advance from the group.

“Normally in the first group the favourite would be, for me, China and Qatar. These teams have more of a chance of going through for me,” he said.

“Qatar are the local team, Bruno Metsu has prepared a good team, and when you are at home you have a good chance to go through to the next round.”

In Group B, Saudi Arabia, who are the most successful team in the competition, having won three out of the six finals they have played in, are favoured to join Japan in the knock-out stage.

Japanese coach Alberto Zaccheroni has included three German-based players in his final squad, including Shinji Kagawa, who has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season.

Jordan and Syria are expected to play second fiddle to the two power-houses of Asian football.

The final group sees Bahrain, India and South Korea with Australia, who are playing in only their second Asian Cup competition since joining the Asian confederation.

The Socceroos are one of the favourites to feature in the championship match Jan 29 in Khalifa Stadium, but midfielder Tim Cahill, who is one of several highly rated European professionals playing in the tournament, downplays his teams’ chances.

The Everton midfielder told Australian media that it will not be an easy tournament, saying it was “very difficult” for him to consider Australia as favourites.

“We want to respect all the other nations and play just as well as we can, show a good attitude and put in a lot of commitment,” he said. “There is potential for a lot of countries to win it, and we have to try and work hard to be the best in our group, and we wll see what happens after that.”

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