The Asian Cup has been described as the “jewel in the crown of Asian football” by organisers of the 2019 tournament, which kicks off in the UAE in January.
Next year’s tournament, the 17th edition of the Asian Cup, will kick off on January 5 at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium when the hosts take on Gulf neighbours Bahrain in the opening game.
It concludes with the final, also at the same venue, on February 1. The Whites will hope to feature in that game, just like they did the last and only time the tournament was hosted in the Emirates, 22 years ago.
On that occasion, the UAE lost 4-2 on penalties to rivals Saudi Arabia, who won their third crown. Next year’s hosts await their first title, but their case won’t be made easier by the fact the country will host the biggest ever edition of the Asian Cup, with 24 teams competing – an upgrade of eight from the 16 nations who have featured at the last four tournaments.
Tickets go on sale on Monday, with eight stadiums across four UAE cities – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Sharjah – hosting a mammoth total of 51 matches.
“We are really happy that we’re hosting a tournament that is huge for Asia, the most important in Asia. The Asian Cup is the jewel in the crown of Asian football,” said Aref Al Awani, tournament director of the Local Organising Committee, at the ticket launch in the capital on Thursday.
“It is exciting because at the beginning when we did the bidding it was 16 teams and later it was increased to 24. So it was challenge for us, but a good challenge. And after the draw we are sure the challenge has fallen on our side.
“The UAE will be the first to have 24 teams, meaning half the continent will be here. There’s always a passion for big football tournaments. We hope our national team and the others will be ready. And we are sure they will.”
Al Awani is confident that fans will flock to each venue, thanks to the diverse and colourful cultural landscape of the UAE, with the likes of India, the Philippines, Iran, Syria and Saudi expected to draw huge crowds.
The estimated amount of Indians living in the UAE is believed to be just over 27 per cent of the approximate 9.54 million (2.62m) people that call the country home.
They outweigh the native Emirati population by around 16 per cent. Filipinos, meanwhile, are said to make up around five per cent of the population (530,000) and Iran four per cent (454,000).
For these reasons, and given the proximity to one another of the host cities, plus the fact each team will play their three group matches at different venues, Al Awani believes attendances could soar with travel between each city relatively short.
“For sure it is a big advantage,” he added. “This makes us really optimistic that we will have a high number of attendances. For example, we are talking about the large fan base of India, the Philippines, Thailand. Most of the teams that are going to be here have fans living in the UAE.
“Besides that, many are expected to come from the East, when it will be the winter break there, so we’re expecting a lot to travel during this period. We think that everything is on our side.”
Ticket prices begin at Dh25 for the group stages, with those for the final stages ranging between Dh75 and Dh300.
“Our aim was not to have that expensive tickets so to keep it within the disposal of anyone who would like to attend the matches,” added Al Awani.
“We promise everybody who is attending the tournament is going to have a good experience.”
The addition of eight more teams has also given less experienced footballing nations like India and the Philippines a chance to shine on the huge continental stage.
The Philippines and Kyrgyzstan will feature at the Asian Cup for the first time.
This will be only be India’s second appearance in the competition since 1988. Syria, Thailand and Turkmenistan will appear for the first time in 15 years, while Lebanon and Vietnam both qualified for the first time having featured previously only as hosts, in 2000 and 2007 respectively. Vietnam and Yemen, meanwhile, are both qualifying for the first time as unified nations.
Eleven teams, including the UAE, feature from the West Asian Football Federation, which excites Al Awani as it throws up several rival clashes between nations.
“Most of the derbies are Arab nations and that’s something that is different,” he added.
“We found there are a lot of derbies, so we’re waiting for very nice derbies, competitive matches.
“And there are a lot of new teams that will give a boost to the tournament. We know from hosting other sports events that these fans really love their sport. And we are hoping the same applies to the Asian Cup.”
Al Awani also believes the tournament, which will come hot on the heels of the FIFA Club World Cup in December, hosted by the UAE for the second successive year, will continue the buzz after a World Cup year.
“And as well we have Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who did an amazing job at the World Cup. Most of them were unlucky and presented a very high performance.
“So everybody now from the other teams are preparing to elevate their performance just to be equal to those teams.”
With six months to go until the UAE host the AFC Asian Cup, early bird group ticket packages for corporates are now available for purchase.
From January 5 to February 1, a total of 24 nations including the UAE will be batting for glory in the largest Asian Cup ever. A total of 51 matches will be played in eight stadiums across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
In support of the Local Organising Committee’s (LOC) aim of ‘Bringing Asia Together’, group ticket packages allow businesses the chance to bring their employees to celebrate Asia as one. This is the first ticket release from the LOC and offers groups the chance to reserve tickets before they go on general sale later this summer.
Australia are bidding to retain their title after winning the title in 2015 while Alberto Zaccheroni, who managed Japan’s 2011 triumph, will be hoping to replicate his success for hosts UAE.
“We’ve had a phenomenal amount of interest from the business community in the UAE looking to secure seats to the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, which is exciting to see,” he said. “These packages will allow local companies the opportunity to bring their employees together for a truly unforgettable experience and in turn support us unite a continent in the Emirates.
“We have a very diverse workforce in the UAE, which includes most of the Asian nations heading to compete here in January 2019. We also have many football fans from these countries and others from Western nations living in the UAE, too. We see a real chance here for employees to be brought together in a celebration of football and Asia.”
Dato Windsor John, General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, added: “Asian Cup is the pinnacle of national team football in Asia and the tournament in UAE will be the biggest and best ever staged with the potential for thousands of fans to follow their teams. The UAE is home to a diverse population and the group sales offer them all a chance to take part in this celebration of football.”
What: Asian Cup Corporate tickets
Where: Various locations
When: January 5 to February 1
Contact: For more information on how to purchase, email [email protected]
There will be no UAE representative in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League for the first time in five years after Al Ain limped out of the tournament thanks to an aggregate 8-3 thrashing by Al Duhail.
Up against it from a 4-2 defeat at home in the first-leg, the Boss were marched out by a ruthless display of precision from the hosts, who will now have designs on the overall title.
A ghastly game from the Garden City side
They may be the cream of the crop back home, but Al Ain’s milky performance against Duhail over two legs proved that there remains some way to go for them to rise to the top on the continent.
The Boss have been to the semi-finals of the Champions League in two of the last four seasons and reached the quarter-finals a year ago.
And even though entry to the last eight this year beckoned, they never looked remotely close to beating Qatar’s champions and launching another assault on an elusive second continental title.
While heartbroken compatriots Al Jazira were left to rue contentious refereeing and bad luck that saw them heroically exit on away goals at Iran’s Persepolis on Monday night following a 4-4 aggregate draw, there was no such saving grace for Zoran Mamic’s men to fall back on. They were soundly beaten.
The 2017/18 season ends on an anti-climactic note for the Arabian Gulf League champions – who reclaimed their throne and lifted a record-extending 13th domestic title. They added a seventh President’s Cup title and had been eyeing an unprecedented treble. But such lofty dreams were dashed in epic fashion in Doha.
In truth, a demoralising 4-1 defeat on the night and an 8-3 trouncing overall wasn’t even remotely harsh on the visiting side – with the writing on the wall as early as the 12th minute when Mohamed Ahmed tried to deal with a dangerous cross but could only prod past prone goalkeeper Khalid Essa.
Plenty for the domestic double winners to contemplate over the summer months ahead of next season.
Contrast in fortunes and form of both team’s playmakers
Omar Abdulrahman is the golden boy of UAE football, and was Asia’s crown jewel in 2016, too. But his sizeable fall from grace was evidenced here by how he could only occupy the shadow of Duhail’s dazzling Nam Tae-hee.
Just as Al Ain were second best to their impressive hosts in the second leg and overall in this tie, Abdulrahman’s influence paled in comparison to his opposite No10 who tortured the Boss with probing passes and evasive maneuvering.
It’s amazing to consider that Nam won’t be going to the World Cup with South Korea.
The two shared the same pitch but might as well have been playing in separate stadiums, such was the gulf in class between their performances.
Amoory grazed the outside of the post in his one flash of brilliance, something that has stayed hidden for much of this season.
He somehow collected a fourth Emirati Player of the Year accolade at the Arabian Gulf League Awards last week, despite falling way short of the exceedingly excellent standards he has set in both UAE and Asian football over the last decade.
A season marred by poor form and injury yielded the least domestic league assists (four) since 2014/15 (two) and the joint second fewest of his career since bursting onto the scene eight years ago.
He only featured in 13 games, his third lowest total. But his five goals were his fourth-best tally.
Nam was the QNB Stars League’s player of the season a year ago, putting former Barcelona string-puller Xavi in the shade. On Tuesday night it was Abdulrahman who he cast a dark cloud over.
Lead Duhail to the final and he should usurp him as Asia’s finest creator, too.
Are we finally set for a western winner?
There hasn’t been a West Asia winner of the Champions League since Al Saad hoisted the trophy high seven years ago.
Since that 4-2 penalty shootout triumph over South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2011, teams from the east have outscored the west 8-3 in finals.
But the way Duhail ruthlessly cast aside the champions of the UAE on Tuesday night opens up the distinct possibility that the barren run could be ended this year.
In truth, western region teams have been more than a match for their counterparts from the east in recent years, on paper at least.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal were immeasurably more talented than rank outsiders Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, but were beaten by the Australian’s grit and determination.
A lack of big game experience denied a supreme Al Ahli side victory in 2015, Cosmin Olaroiu’s men shaking off a dismal campaign domestically to reach the final, but they were unable to overcome an experienced group who were in their second final in two years.
In 2016, Al Ain simply didn’t seem to possess the mental fortitude to overcome a Leonardo-inspired Jeonbuk – with fellow Brazilian forward Douglas left broken by a fluffed penalty in the second leg of the final that proved to be the catalyst to his side’s downfall.
The tougher rounds are ahead. And Duhail will surely face a sterner test in the quarter-finals than the one provided by the Boss.
But on this evidence it will take something special to stop the newly-amalgamated side from becoming the second Qatari champions of Asia.