Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Welcome to the wonderful world of Asia

    Can you imagine a place where coaches that successfully lead teams to World Cup finals qualification then get sacked for a poor showing in a tournament you've never heard of? A place where a national team might rely on naturalised Africans and South Americans? A place where English Premier League players receive more adulation than they would in England? A place where a third of all the national teams don't even enter their continental championship? A place where administrators regret the decision they made about who will be hosting a major tournament the minute after they made it? A place where players are rewarded with camels?

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Asia. Yes, I know that CONCACAF's Gold Cup ended recently. And that some sort of international football tournament is also being played in South America.

    But Asia is unique. It has its oddities because it's so diverse. And the result is that, culturally, the Asian Cup is like a mini World Cup.

    OK, you might question the quality of the football. But don't, for a moment, think that this tournament will be dull. Besides, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia are all vying for the prize. And while you'd expect those teams to defeat teams like Iraq, China, Bahrain and Qatar, you just know that upsets are possible. Believe me when I tell you that the Asian Cup is worth following.

    I'm really excited about the tournament's kick off on Saturday and I'm just sorry that I'm unlikely to be able to attend any of the matches. They'll be shared by Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. (Yes, we have four host nations.) Still, the games will be shown live in Australia and I won't have to wake up in the middle of the night to watch them. That's a rare treat for fans in this part of the world - we're quite used to watching big football matches at 4.00 am.

    The format is straightforward. There are 16 teams divided into 4 groups and the top 2 in each group progress to knockout quarter-finals. You know the drill. Each group has a host nation and a seed. The seeds for the Asian Cup finals were determined by FIFA rankings even though the criterion used for the qualifying tournament was results in the last Asian Cup. That was good news for teams like South Korea (which flopped in the 2004 Asian Cup) and Australia (still a member of Oceania at the time). It was bad news for China (2004 runner-up) and Bahrain (4th place). When the draw was made, South Korea and Bahrain ended up in the same group anyway. And with Saudi Arabia joining them in Group D, it truly is the Group of Death (oh come on, every international tournament has to have one). Here's a brief look at all the groups:

Group A
(Thailand, Australia, Iraq, Oman)

    Not surprisingly, Australia goes into the tournament as one of the favourites after the Socceroos' strong showing in Germany last year. There are, however, some question marks over the Aussies. Will Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell remain fit throughout the tournament? Can the players adapt to the unfamiliar humid climate? And will the defence cope without Craig Moore and Scott Chipperfield who are both unavailable? Australia's most recent friendly against Singapore revealed some defensive shortcomings but the form of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell would have sent shivers down the spines of the Socceroos' rivals.

    Oman and Iraq will be the first teams to test themselves against Australia but it's difficult to know who poses the greater threat. Normally you'd say Iraq which finished fourth at the Athens Olympics (after eliminating Australia) and has reached the quarter-finals of the last 3 Asian Cups. But Iraq's young team has not had a good preparation.

    Oman, on the other hand, seems to be improving and it wouldn't be too surprising to see Oman beat the Iraqis to a place in the last eight. Many of Oman's players are with clubs in Qatar, which has a rich league that attracts quality foreign players. Oman also has former Argentine international Gabriel Calderón at the helm. Calderón guided Saudi Arabia to qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals and is the coach I was referring to in this column's opening sentence.

    Thailand is the highest ranked of the four host nations and this is its fifth consecutive Asian Cup finals. Nevertheless the Thais are only likely to record a fifth consecutive group stage exit. They shouldn't disgrace themselves though - and they did complete their preparations with a win over Qatar - and one or two of their players, particularly young forward Teerathep Winothai, should be worth watching.

Group B
(Vietnam, Japan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates)

    The Japanese should win this group but whether they can go on to win a third consecutive Asian Cup depends on a team that is in transition. There'll be no Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono or Atsushi Yanagisawa. It will be up to Shunsuke Nakamura to lead an inexperienced midfield and the pressure might be on Naohiro Takahara to score goals. Japan's biggest ace might be in the coaching box where veteran manager Ivica Osim will be calling the shots.

    Qatar and United Arab Emirates will be battling for second place here and they've been drawn to play each other on Group B's last day of group matches. The two neighbouring nations have a lot in common, both on and off the football field. It's not easy to pick between them. Qatar has a relatively good domestic competition and is boosted by naturalised foreign players but the team's recent form has been unimpressive. The UAE (under the watchful eye of Bruno Metsu who took Senegal to the World Cup quarter-finals five years ago) recently hosted and won the Gulf Cup and might be the better bet.

    It might surprise you to know that football is quite popular in Vietnam but that's unlikely to help Group B's host nation. The Vietnamese national team and its domestic league are both improving but a quarter-final berth would be a real shock. No Vietnamese team has been in the Asian Cup finals since South Vietnam finished fourth in 1960.

Group C
(Malaysia, China, Iran and Uzbekistan)

    Look out for Iran, people. This team may not have set the world on fire in Germany last year but it has plenty of quality and enough experience to challenge for this title. It should certainly top this group and the Iranians have some of the tournament's best players in Mehdi Mahdavikia, Rahman Rezaei, Ali Karimi and Vahid Hashemian. The path through the knockout phase won't be easy - they'll probably face South Korea or Saudi Arabia in the quarter-finals and then teams like Japan and Australia may lie in wait. But Iran will certainly be difficult to beat.

    This is yet another group where it's difficult to pick second place. Will it be China or Uzbekistan? The Uzbeks, who had such cruel luck in World Cup qualifying, might just have the edge with Dynamo Kyiv striker Maksim Shatskikh leading a handful of players that play for clubs in Ukraine and Russia.

    After qualifying for the 2002 World Cup finals and finishing second in the 2004 Asian Cup, China failed to reach the final group stage of Asia's World Cup qualifiers for Germany 2006. The Chinese did defeat Uzbekistan in a friendly earlier this year but they have since recorded losses to the United States and Thailand. China will be relying heavily on their English-based players: Sun Jihai, Li Tie and Dong Fangzhuo; and Energie Cottbus' Shao Jiayi.

    The real test for either Uzbekistan or China will be in the quarter-finals. But it's hard to see either side reaching the Final in Jakarta on 29 July.

    Host nation Malaysia is the lowest ranked of all the teams competing in the finals and has not had good results in recent friendly matches. In this sort of company, Malaysia will really struggle.

Group D
(Indonesia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and South Korea)

    And so to the Group of Death. South Korea is the favourite to win the group but its squad has been weakened by injuries. The absence of Park Ji-Sung, Lee Young-pyo and Seol Ki-hyeon means that it will be difficult for the Koreans to end their surprising Asian Cup drought - they haven't won the tournament since 1960. Nevertheless, the squad has plenty of experience and was boosted by a recent 3-0 win in a friendly against Iraq. South Korea has also stuck with the tradition of having a Dutch coach with Pim Verbeek at the helm. Verbeek has been an assistant to both Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat.

    You'd back Saudi Arabia to reach the quarter-finals but this team still does little to inspire. The Saudis stuck to their own coaching tradition by ditching the coach that led them to qualification for this tournament just months before it started. And their team is full of players whose club football experience is limited to the Saudi league. There is some quality in the squad - and many eyes will be on young striker Yasser Al-Qahtani again - but the Saudis are unlikely win a fourth Asian Cup.

    And so to Bahrain, Asia's nearly team. You probably remember that the Bahrainis nearly qualified for the World Cup finals. Three years ago they nearly reached the Asian Cup Final. They nearly didn't qualify for this tournament and had to rely on a last day win over Kuwait to secure their place. You can just about guarantee that they'll either just qualify for the quarter-finals or they'll just miss out. Look out for Ala'a Hubail who starred in this tournament three years ago, and Nigerian-born forward Jaycee John. Bahrain is coached by Milan Macala - a Czech who has also coached Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait! When the tournament finishes, he's leaving to coach Qatar. alright, I made that last bit up.

    Like Thailand, Indonesia has regularly qualified for recent Asian Cups but has been unable to progress beyond the group stage. Like the other host nations, it will probably fail to do so this time as well - especially in such a tough group. All of Indonesia's player play in Indonesia. It's not the worst league in the world. Indeed, one of its clubs, Persik Kediri, defeated Sydney FC in an Asian Champions League match in April.

    OK, it's not the Euros, but if you're able to see some of the Asian Cup, I doubt that you'll be disappointed. I truly expect this to be a cracking tournament and I'll be back with updates on this website. Stay tuned.



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