Iran are the continent’s highest-ranked team heading into the tournament, as well as this summer’s World Cup, and are three-time winners of the Asia Cup. Yet Team Melli have not tasted victory in more than 40 years.
They lifted the trophy an unprecedented three times in a row from 1968 to 1976 but haven’t done so since – their best efforts in the last 42 years four third-place finishes in 1980, 1988, 1996 and 2004.
Daei, 49, is not only Team Melli’s record goalscorer, netting an impressive 109 times in 149 appearances. He is international football’s all-time top scorer – with Hungary hero Ferenc Puskas second highest, but a huge 25 behind Daei on 84.
And he is keen for his country to assert their dominance as Asia’s No1 by winning a record-equaling fourth Asia Cup.
“This is our dream to shine again in the Asian Cup,” Daei, the former Bayern Munich striker who also had a spell with Al Shabab in the UAE, said at the 2019 Asian Cup draw in Dubai on Friday.
“We have a very good chance, it doesn’t matter what group it would be. We can qualify from the group stage whatever group we’re in.”
Iran, managed by former Real Madrid and Portugal tactician Carlos Queiroz were drawn in Group D at the ceremony, held at the Armani Hotel in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, alongside 2007 champions Iraq, Vietnam, who qualified for the first time as a unified nation, and debutants Yemen.
That 1996 podium place for Iran came the last and only previous time the tournament was held in the Emirates, with Iran exiting at the semi-final stage to eventual champions Saudi Arabia – who beat host nation the UAE 4-2 in a penalty shootout.
And Daei says it is difficult to compare his era to this current crop, who are ranked 36th in FIFA’s world rankings.
“It’s not easy to compare. We were really unlucky in 1996,” said Daei.
He’s not wrong. Iran led the tournament in goals scored, with 14, the then 27-year-old bagging eight of them.
“We lost to Saudi Arabia in a penalty shootout, otherwise we deserved to be champions. We were better than any other team in the tournament.”
With Iran just a short flight away from the UAE and a large Iranian expat population calling the Emirates home, Daei hopes good support here will help Team Melli’s chances of success.
“Definitely it will have a big impact,” he added. “It will be a major driver and can bring a lot of passion and emotion to the atmosphere of the stadiums during the competition, to support the team.”
Before the Asian Cup, however, there is the small matter of this summer’s World Cup in Russia of course. Iran have been placed in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ alongside European giants Spain and Portugal, as well as Morocco.
And despite the odds being stacked against them, Daei is optimistic.
“We have been drawn in the most difficult World Cup group. But anything can happen in football,” said the man who also briefly coached his country from 2008-09.
“The team has been working very well so far and we are hoping they can deliver some good results in the World Cup.
“The Asian Cup is eight or nine months away and the World Cup will be a preparation and part of the build-up to the Asian Cup.”
Phil Younghusband says the Philippines will enjoy the experience of competing at their first-ever Asian Cup next year – but the former Chelsea protege is adamant his side won’t be coming here simply to make up the numbers in the UAE.
The Azkals (Street Dogs) will be one of three debutants at next year’s tournament – alongside Yemen and Kyrgyzstan.
And even though Younghusband was delighted to be rubbing shoulders with football royalty like Italy icon Marcello Lippi and the highest goalscorer in international football history, Iran’s Ali Daei, at the tournament draw in Dubai on Friday, the 30-year-old striker insists it will be down to business once the tournament gets under way on January 5, 2019.
“We’re here for the experience but not just that. We want to be part of the tournament, make our mark and show Asia that the Philippines has a football team,” said Younghusband, who is both his nation’s record caps holder and scorer, with an impressive 50 goals in 97 appearances.
“Just being in this environment and being among people like Marcello Lippi (China coach), Ali Daei, that sort of company. It’s a wonderful experience and it’s something we hope to do more of in the future.
“Living in the Philippines with the lack of facilities and often lack of support, just seeing this makes you realise where the Philippines can grow to. It’s great to be here and hopefully we’ll be here a lot more often.”
#AsianCup2019 FINAL GROUPS— The Philippine Football Federation (@philfootball) 4 May 2018
A 🇦🇪 🇹🇭 🇮🇳 🇧🇭
B 🇦🇺 🇸🇾 🇵🇸 🇯🇴
C 🇰🇷 🇨🇳 🇰🇬 🇵🇭
D 🇮🇷 🇮🇶 🇻🇳 🇾🇪
E 🇸🇦 🇶🇦 🇱🇧 🇰🇵
F 🇯🇵 🇺🇿 🇴🇲🇹🇲
The Azkals, still on a high after an historic first qualification to the Asian Cup, are yet to announce whether head coach Thomas Dooley, the former United States international, will renew his contract.
He surely will return though to lead the country in the UAE. They are in a tough Group C, alongside China and two-time winners South Korea, as well as Kyrgyzstan.
But star man Younghusband is buoyed by the fact four third-placed teams from the six groups will qualify for the knockout rounds in a reformatted competition that will see a record 24 teams take part.
“Once we qualified we said we’re not just here to make up the numbers, we’re here to compete,” said the Davao Aguilas frontman.
“With the format we can qualify as one of the best third-placed sides which gives us a great chance.”
And he’s also banking on the powerhouses of Asian football underestimating his side.
“I hope so,” he added. “We’ve got a tough group but we’ve had two decent results recently (beat Tajikistan 2-1 and Fiji 3-2).
“We beat Kyrgyzstan (twice in 2016) and lost badly to China (8-1 in June 2017) but at least we’re playing against teams we’ve played before and know what to expect.
“With South Korea it’s a bit different but we’re excited for the test and it’s up to us to ensure we’re making a name for ourselves.”
One thing the Philippines can count on is the fervent support of a mammoth expat community, with around 750,000 Filipinos living in the UAE.
Younghusband, who was born in Surrey to an English father and Filipina mother, joined Chelsea’s academy aged nine and turned professional with the Stamford Bridge club in 2005 – spending three further years in West London.
It was in 2005 when his eligibility for the Philippines was discovered, with the Philippine Football Federation reportedly alerted to Younghusband by an anonymous gamer who allegedly found out about his lineage via popular computer game Football Manager.
He has since gone on to become a national hero and hopes his fellow countrymen and women will turn out in force to cheer on their team next year.
“That many? Wow,” said Younghusband when told of the Filipino population in the Emirates.
“Hopefully 10 per cent of them show up. You speak to a lot of people here and you hear they’re happy the Philippines qualified as there’s a lot of them here in the UAE who can come and support.
“We hope they do come and we have plans to go out into the communities and visit schools, rally the troops and make sure every game feels like a home game.
“I think that’s important because we’ll be going into the game at a handicap but hopefully our fans can make it more of a leveler.”
Asked if the number of Filipinos could mean the UAE becoming a future destination for Younghusband to play and live, he added: “Not right now. But who knows. If a good offer comes, no-one knows what the future is.”
Preparing for a World Cup without the celebrated and much-loved coach who got them there has been tough, but Australia have been lucky to acquire the services of a man who managed in the 2010 World Cup final.
The 65-year-old Dutchman, who led the Netherlands to the final of the World Cup in South Africa eight years ago, ensured Saudi Arabia qualified for their fifth World Cup and first since Germany 2006 in September last year.
However, a dispute over a contract extension and a long-standing issue over Van Marwijk’s choice not to live in the Kingdom, led to him resigning days later.
The 52-year-old Postecoglou cut an emotional figure when he announced his resignation two months later in November – just a week after guiding Australia to this summer’s World Cup in Russia, a fourth-straight finals appearance.
The Greek-born boss revealed his four-year tenure in charge of the Socceroos had taken its toll on him “both personally and professionally”. Van Marwijk’s appointment as Postecoglou’s replacement earlier this year, exclusively for the World Cup, completed the managerial merry-go-round.
Even though Postecoglou has gone, his assistant Ante Milicic has remained in place. And the former Aussie striker says Van Marwijk’s transition into the job has been seamless.
“For Bert to come in, we were very lucky to get someone with a lot of experience and in such a short space of time with what was available,” Milicic told reporters at the official draw for the 2019 Asian Cup in Dubai on Friday.
“He’s played against us twice with Saudi and there’s a lot of respect for what he did in 2010. He took a Dutch team to the final of the World Cup. That’s a tournament we’re going to and he’s brought in some excellent staff with him.
“Collectively they’ve come in, it’s very clear how they want to move forward over this short period and I must say in such a short space of time the way they’ve got their message across in March was excellent and we’ll build on that from May when we go to Turkey for our pre-World Cup base camp.
“It’s not been ideal preparation; it never is when a coach departs so soon after he’s qualified us for the World Cup. But at the same time Bert and his staff have come in at a good time because what he gets is players in that March window who are so hungry to go to the World Cup.
“The new ideas have come in and with Australian players, you always know with their attitude and mentality, they’ve bought into it straight away and our preparation camp before Russia looks good and everyone’s excited. First of all, to get into the squad and then make an impact in Russia.”
After being pitted against European powerhouses Spain and the Dutch, as well as South American giants Chile in the ‘Group of Death’ in Brazil four years ago, the Socceroos again find themselves with tough opponents in Russia – taking on France, Denmark and Peru.
But Milicic is confident the Australian players will have grown from that 2014 experience, with players earning more caps and the squad set to be boosted by a few returning players and talented stars making their World Cup bows.
“The players are so motivated and you must remember this group has grown,” added Milicic.
“A lot of the players were there in the last World Cup in Brazil. But now in Russia they’ve got an extra 20-30 caps under their belt.
“There were also a couple of them who missed out last time and really kicked on the last few years. You look at (Tom) Rogic, (Aaron) Mooy, while (Trent) Sainsbury and (Robbie) Kruse got injured so we’ve got a lot of players really hungry to do well at World Cup level.”
Milicic has been Aussie assistant since 2014 and the 44-year-old is keenly aware that their entire World Cup campaign likely rests on a crunch opening clash with the flamboyant French.
“The World Cup’s a difficult one because the first game is France and if you look at their squad, they’re a team some might pick to win the tournament so we’ve got a strong focus on that first game,” he said.
“We’re looking forward to getting a good result against France and then moving on to Denmark and Peru. We believe we can get out of the group and all our focus is on that first game, it’s an important one and where we need to get a result so it lays the platform for us to move on.”
Our Asian Cup 2019 group draw has been confirmed.— TIM CAHILL (@Tim_Cahill) 4 May 2018
Jordan 🇯🇴 pic.twitter.com/S3gDDhjYWD
The World Cup admittedly takes precedence ahead of next year’s Asian Cup. But that is also a massive tournament, with the Socceroos coming to the UAE as defending champions, having won their first continental title three years ago on home soil.
And although the World Cup is the biggest football spectacle on the planet, Milicic insists the Asian Cup is just as important for the boys in green and gold.
“The World Cup is massively important in laying a platform for the Asian Cup,” added the man who left his post as Western Sydney Wanderers assistant to take up his position as Postecoglou’s assistant months before their 2014 AFC Champions League triumph over Al Hilal.
“The World Cup will play a big part, that’s first on the agenda. But make no mistake about it, this is an important tournament we’ve got coming up six months later.”