What better way to ring in 2015 than watching Asia’s biggest international tournament?
The 2015 AFC Asian Cup kicks off tomorrow morning in Australia. The 16-nation field is an intriguing mix of 2014 World Cup representatives, emerging soccer powers, and relative unknowns. Here’s why you should be watching:
1. Australia’s Chance To Shine
The last decade of Australian soccer has been the country’s best. After leaving the Oceania Football Federation to join Asia’s in 2005, they’ve qualified for three straight World Cups and now host their first Asian Cup tournament.
The distance between Australia and actual Asian continent should provide quite a home-field advantage for the Socceroos as they look to avenge their loss to Japan in the 2011 final. And at 35 years old, this may also be the last international tournament for the nation’s all-time leading goalscorer Tim Cahill. Look for him to wow the Aussie faithful one more time.
2. World Cup Redemption
It was a rough World Cup for Asia’s representatives. Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Iran not only failed to advance past the group stage, but each finished at the bottom of their respective groups. It was a far cry from 2010, when both Japan and South Korea made the Round of 16 and nearly made the quarterfinal.
This is a chance for any of the four to pick up the pieces and claim the vacant throne atop Asian soccer. Though these are the odds-on favorites to make the semifinal, they’re also ripe for a tournament upset.
3. Palestine’s Debut
Anyone questioning the magnitude of the Asian Cup should tell Palestine. The fledgling soccer team is making their first major tournament appearance thanks to AFC’s program for emerging soccer nations. Palestine defeated the Phillipines to win the AFC Challenge Cup back in May. This tournament automatically qualifies its 2014 and 2012 winners (North Korea) into the AFC Asian Cup.
Playing away from home shouldn’t be an issue: because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the team hasn’t played an official home match since 2011. The team is led on and off the pitch Mamoud Eid and Ashraf Nu’man, who were profiled in a recent article by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.
4. A 38th Parallel Clash?
Despite North and South Korea’s political tension, those same bitter sentiments don’t extend to the sporting world. In fact, the North and South are pretty supportive of one another when it comes to soccer. That is, when they aren’t playing one another. North and South Korea is still a heated — though one-sided — rivalry. In their 15 meetings since 1978, the North has only won once: a 2-1 victory back in 1990.
They haven’t met since 2009 but with South Korea in Group A and North Korea in a weaker Group B, a quarterfinal meeting is certainly possible. This is North Korea’s best chance to knock off their southern rival in a long time.
5. Getting To Know Qatar
Lost in the controversy of Qatar hosting of the 2022 World Cup is the fact that Qatar’s national team will likely be making their World Cup debut. For as much as we know about the hot temperatures and migrant worker deaths, the team itself is relatively unknown.
For starters, they may be better than their FIFA World Ranking of 93rd indicates. They only lost once during 2014 and earned victories over Asian Cup participants Australia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. They have the unfortunate honor of sharing a group with Asian powerhouse Japan and emerging nations Jordan and Iraq, but this is just the first of many appearances Qatar will make on the global stage leading up to 2022.
The 2015 AFC Asian Cup can be seen on ONE World Sports in the U.S. Check your local listings for availability.