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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The AFC Asian Cup: A closer look at the Socceroos' next challenge

A new chapter has begun for Asia's footballing elite in 2024, following over a year on from a hugely successful 2022 World Cup campaign across the continent, as 24 teams will compete for the AFC Asian Cup. In what is likely a rare first in global football, the stadiums previously used for the World Cup will host another major tournament 13 months after hosting world football's most significant showpiece.

The redesigned AFC Asian Cup trophy at the tournament's draw in Doha. (The Asian Game)

Qatar's controversial selection as host following China's withdrawal due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic meant the as-branded 2023 AFC Asian Cup has been delayed until now, bringing the new year in with a bang, albeit controversially so, with many believing the rival South Korean bid, and a previous promise to rotate the finals with an east and west host, was quashed by financial greed from the governing bodies, the AFC, and FIFA.

However, from a purely sporting perspective, the six 2022 FIFA World Cup participants from the AFC will rejoice at the familiarity of the Qatari stadiums and conditioning in this tournament environment. They will be tipped for a huge month, with some only burdened by the draw's cruel nature.

With that in mind and looking at the tournament more broadly, who, alongside the Socceroos, has a justifiable claim to be the new king of Asia?

Group A kicked off with hosts Qatar cruising past Lebanon. After facing embarrassment at their home World Cup, they must reshape their entire footballing philosophy, especially after a whirlwind 12-month period saw three managers come and go, a potentially xenophobic attack during a friendly, and poor results against lesser opponents. Their 3-0 win overnight was a good start.

There is a positive in metrics off the field looking promising for the tournament, with an uptick in ticket demand for the opening match against Lebanon, meaning the fixture was moved from Al-Khor Stadium to Lusail Stadium to accommodate what was an 80,000+ strong crowd, proving fans in the region can be as passionate as anywhere in the world.

The key players from their 2019 triumph, such as Almoez Ali, Akram Afif, and Hassan Al-Haydos, are still in the Qatari ranks. Afif led the way in the opener with a brace, whilst Ali added his first of the tournament. However, despite a good start, with their managerial merry-go-round of late, circumstances may make it challenging to see this side back to their best.

Elsewhere, poor form in the lead-up echos a similar story for China, still led by veteran forward Wu Lei. The Red Dragons always have expectations and should not be written off. Beyond that, debutants Tajikistan held an impressive record of only two losses from ten matches in 2023. Meanwhile, Lebanon proved its worth by only going down 1-0 to giants Saudi Arabia in their warm-up friendly, and though they have made a poor start, the ultimate tests for this team will come in their second and third group games against China and Tajikistan.

Group C will be hosting one of the most culturally and politically significant matches in the 74-year history of the Asian Cup, with Palestine and Hong Kong potentially facing off in their third group game for three points that could secure either a place in the Round of 16.

We need not mention the significance of two states whose sovereignty and human rights have dominated the global landscape in recent years, meeting for a football match that could have a big prize awaiting its victor, which alone is worth keeping an eye out for.

Iconic imagery defines the show being put on by Qatar. (The Hindustan Times)

Meanwhile, Iran and the United Arab Emirates will trade blows at the top of Group C, with the Iranians always arriving at the Asian Cup as a tournament favourite. Team Melli has not lost since the World Cup, facing Asian, African, and European opponents.

However, some are cautious of backing a side that may need to refresh their approach to tournament football, given the many distractions leading to their World Cup failure and the turmoil that led to foreign coaches being sacked.

For the UAE, their tournament preparations are curious, having primarily only played weaker Asian nations in 2023. But with former South Korean boss Paulo Bento in charge and a new generation sprinkled throughout the squad, the Sons of Zayed are in Qatar to make a statement.

Group D should be dominated by tournament favourite Japan, a side whose World Cup form turned heads in Europe, particularly with the Japanese players plying their trade among the game's European elite. The Blue Samurai, much like Iran, has been in scintillating form, successfully beating opponents from three confederations across a ten-match win streak that currently goes back to March 2023.

Iraq defeated Vietnam and Indonesia in 2026 World Cup qualifying across their last two competitive fixtures, two sides they will also meet at the tournament alongside Japan. However, Iraq's path to the Round of 16 would likely pit them against the favoured South Korea, should they, as expected, finish second in the group. It is an unfortunate draw for a perennial dark horse for the Asian Cup.

Vietnam's French manager, Philippe Troussier, will have high hopes. But the reality is the 2019 quarter-finalists have been suffering from an injury crisis and have struggled to look anywhere close to their best in recent months.

Meanwhile, Indonesia have conceded 17 goals across their last five games, and returning to a tournament they co-hosted in 2007 is likely where the good news will end.

Group E should belong to South Korea, who, having appointed Jürgen Klinsmann, have not conceded in seven matches, a streak that started in September. However, they must address an apparent trend, as the Taegeuk Warriors are usually unexpectedly knocked out in the latter stages. But this time, they sit on the more straightforward side of the draw, and a first title since 1960 is possible but will have to rely on a curse being broken in the one-off nature of knockout football.

Elsewhere, an inexperienced Malaysia also returns to the tournament for the first time since 2007, Bahrain arrives struggling for form, and the 2019 surprise packet Jordan enters the group following a thrashing at the hands of Japan in a pre-tournament friendly. Ultimately, the varying struggles leave the rest of this group up in the air.

Group F sees the bolstered Saudi Arabia return to the tournament under the guidance of Roberto Mancini. The veteran manager has a squad with a familiar core and will avoid facing a barrage of talent in the group stage. Oman's notorious inconsistency, Thailand's evident decline, and Kyrgyzstan's seemingly one-trick knockout appearance in 2019 all highlight that this group will be one many overlook. All three teams also boast significant changes from their last major tournament appearances.


So, the Socceroos. A Graham Arnold-led revolution awaits following the exploits of the fabled class of 22'. Squad selection has come from the depths of Arnold's most unorthodox method yet, with the inclusions of Bolton right-back Gethin Jones and the decision to rejuvenate Bruno Fornaroli's international career sticking out.

Craig Goodwin and Harry Souttar embrace following the latter's opening goal against Bangladesh in World Cup qualifying. (Football Australia/Aleksandar Jason)

Moreover, there is no sign of Ajdin Hrustic following his breakout due to domestic troubles and injury, whilst the cap count average has taken a nosedive with this selection. The biggest worry for Socceroos fans surrounds the key combinations that have not been trialled before such a high-stakes tournament, leaving many questioning whether Australia has left too much to be desired.

An omen sits nicely in the quest for a second title, though, with what will likely be the most critical group match against Uzbekistan and a make-or-break quarterfinal against possibly Saudi Arabia, taking place at the fabled Al-Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah city, home to the famous nights against Tunisia and Denmark at the World Cup.

While we do not deny there are potential oversights with squad selection, the domestic form of the players likely to be included in the starting lineup cannot legitimately be disputed, and that is something, on face value, Arnold should be able to translate well in fearing no opponent on a potential road to Asian glory.

Regarding their opponents, we start with Uzbekistan, who, as a direct rival, are full of grit and should be feared, and the side knocked out by Australia in 2019 harbours increasing expectations. Needless to mention is the possibility of the Socceroos taking vengeance for Uzbekistan taking the Young Socceroos to penalties in front of 30,000 locals in Tashkent at the U20 Asian Cup, and sending them home. Meanwhile, their U17s achieved a miracle by defeating England 2-1 in a World Cup quarterfinal in November.

However, the elephant in the room lies with Serie A-based striker Eldor Shomurodov. He was set to captain his country in their most significant campaign but suffered injury during their pre-tournament camp. While he was named for a potential impact in their third game and beyond, Shomurodov ultimately has not made it through testing and was removed from the squad, which is an enormous headache for the Uzbeks and for the adoring Central Asian public hoping to see the White Wolves make history.



Will Group B likely be dominated by Australia and Uzbekistan, leading the way with safe passage into the Round of 16? It is very likely but should not be overstated. India and Syria will face what is being perceived as a tough challenge this month.

Syria will be led by veterans such as striker Omar Khribin and goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma (who was famously a part of their 2018 World Cup qualifying run and a Socceroos rival in 2019), still in the fold under veteran South American manager Héctor Cúper, and India boasts an undisputed South Asian football icon in Sunil Chhetri. Both nations may still be far from challenging for a Round of 16 birth, but it is a feat they had experienced in the not-too-distant past when both countries went beyond their means in competitive AFC competitions.

The trajectory of Group B may back up the original sentiment, though. Syria's last victory came back in November when they scraped past lowly East Asian opponents North Korea in only their third win of 2023. India tells a different story: eight wins across nine competitive 90-minute games last year. However, only two came against sides competing in this tournament.

With this tournament being the coming together of Asia's finest talent for its showpiece event, a tale of trust and hope awaits the many across the continent who pin their hopes on football as a beckon of joy and pride. For others, a story of hurt and anguish will define a new era for their football scene. Ultimately, as in life, the tournament will be a rollercoaster, leaving you to ask philosophical questions and bringing you back for more at every opportunity. It is what this sport does, and its peaks and troughs are integral to the experience.

As for Australia, should Arnie's ragtag misfits continue to prosper under the sentiment of the "Aussie DNA" and bang on the door of a second Asian title, they would be doing an undeniable service for the game back home.

But they would ultimately honour the retirements of 2015 hero Massimo Luongo and evergreen fighters Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic and excel in the global recognition gained by Ange Postecoglou, proving the legacy of the 2015 team is forever more.

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