Thursday, January 6, 2011
Qatar out to write a West-side story
It is barely a month since Qatar shocked much of the global football fraternity by being awarded hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. After the frightful fuss made by the international media, the tiny nation will be relieved to get an early opportunity to show what it is made of both on and off the pitch when it stages the 2011 Asian Cup.
The national team, coached by Senegal's 2002 guru Bruno Metsu, kick off proceedings against Uzbekistan on Friday evening local time. It will not go unnoticed by Aussie and American scribes (Korean and Japanese counterparts took the decision in a much more measured fashion) that the 16-nation tournament is taking place in the much cooler month of January rather than its usual July slot. There was little talk of air-conditioned stadia when the continental competition was awarded to Qatar in 2007, though the race to host it wasn't quite as fierce as the five-nation free-for-all that ended in Zurich a few weeks ago. The only rivals were Iran, who missed the deadline to submit an application, and India, who quickly pulled out.
That left Qatar with a clear track ahead but it is not as if the nation is now in uncharted territory. This is the second time that the event has come to Doha, with Saudi Arabia triumphing in 1988. The 2006 Asian Games followed 18 years later when Qatar collected the gold medal as hosts.
The Asian Cup is not exactly the World Cup - though the 2011 edition is a good deal closer to the global giant than the tournament that Qatar hosted over two decades ago. The number of teams has grown from ten to 16, while the whole operation - ticketing, media facilities, sponsorship, TV rights etc - is now as slick as the oil that, along with gas, have fuelled Qatar's thriving economy and successful World Cup bid. In 1988, the final between the Saudis and South Korea was barely noticed around the world, but the 2011 version - which takes place in Doha on January 29 - will have a rather larger audience.
All of those viewers will now be familiar with Asia's biggest stars, many of who now play in Europe and even before a ball is kicked, the tournament has made headlines (and with the entire 'Axis of Evil' is in Group D and a possible all-Korean meeting at the quarter-final stage it will continue to do so). The January start has produced virtually the first-ever cases of widespread club-versus-country clashes in Asian football history. European coaches have been accustomed to losing African players every two years and even the occasional Australian for lengthy trips down under but now Korean (from both sides of the 38th Parallel), Japanese and Iranian stars are having to say farewell to Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga clubs for a significant period of time.
Fans and managers alike at clubs such as Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Celtic, Hamburg, Galatasaray, Cesena, Schalke, Bochum, Osasuna, Bolton Wanderers and Everton will be tuned in, hoping that their stars don't pick up any injuries or in the honest words of David Moyes of Everton, stay too long. The Scot understandably wants Tim Cahill back home as soon as possible, a feeling shared by the bosses of Park Ji-Sung, Shinji Kagawa, Javad Nekounam and others around the continent.
Still, Moyes and the others may find that their eyes are caught by other talent while tuning in as there will be plenty of it on display. Korean and Japanese players have demonstrated that they have what it takes to settle and shine in the big leagues but clubs will be keen to check out a young Chinese team as well as the Indians. These two nations represent massive potential markets and the chance to find one player who is good enough to star in Europe is one that can't be ignored.
And then there are those who hail from the western reaches of the continent. The Iranian pair based in Osasuna apart, few European clubs will be lamenting the departure of West Asian stars. Ali Al-Habsi, goalkeeper for Wigan Athletic is the only one in action in the English Premier League, but Oman didn't qualify and neither did Lebanon, the home of Cologne captain Youssef Mohamad.
The lack of players from the region plying their trade at the highest level week in, week out is one reason given to explain why West Asia seems to be falling behind the eastern edges of the continent when it comes to results on the pitch and professionalism off it.
In club football, the Asian Champions League has now resided in either Japan or South Korea for each of the past five years. The 2010 World Cup was the first one since 1974 without western representation, a fact that was made all the more hard to swallow as the two East Asian giants impressed as they reached the second round in South Africa.
To stop the final of the 2007 Asian Cup, which was played out between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, looking more like an anomaly with each year that passes, the region needs a good showing in Doha in January to follow up on its great success in Zurich in December. If the likes of Korea or Japan pick up the title in the Qatari capital at the end of the month, it really will confirm that West Asia has slipped. And if in the meantime, the likes of Saudi striker Yasser Al-Qahtani, Kuwaiti hitman Bader Al-Mutawa or UAE star Ismail Matar can turn a few European heads and be tempted out of their comfort zones then so much the better for them and Asia as a whole.
The future for Asia is bright and it starts in Qatar on Friday.