The AFC Asian Cup is set for an overhaul in 2019, when the competition will be expanded to 24 teams in an effort to see a wider spread of teams participate, ensuring more interest, both from fans and sponsors, across the vast continent.
But if it’s a wider spread and interest the AFC desires, I suggest a complete overhaul of the qualification process: one that would take us back to the original qualifying format for the tournament.
When the AFC Asian Cup was first introduced in 1956 the qualifying process was simple: the hosts plus the winners of the various zones (central, eastern, western). It was only a four-team tournament, a format that also existed for 1960 and 1964.
While I obviously don’t propose a four-team tournament, I do think there is some merit in reverting to a similar system and using the various sub-confederation championships as the qualifying rounds for the tournament.
Each sub-confederation already hosts their own biennial championship, each with varying degrees of interest. By using these existing championships as qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup the sub-confederations would guarantee interest from participating nations and their fans.
Recently there has been discussion and debate surrounding the AFF Suzuki Cup and Australia’s possible inclusion from 2016 onwards, with many asking just how seriously they would treat such a tournament, especially as it currently falls outside the FIFA window. With Asian Cup qualification as the prize it would be guaranteed that Australia take it seriously.
After all, they’d have to. Suddenly a semi-final spot would mean much, much more.
The benefit of such a format is two-fold.
Firstly, it would ensure an even spread of participating nations and a guaranteed representative from each sub-confederation. Each zone has its own unique culture and style. Japan’s style differs to that of Malaysia, which differs to that of Kuwait. Fans would be treated to the ultimate football and cultural experience: a true Asian Cup.
Such a format also ensures that when the tournament itself takes place there is interest from right across the continent. Using 2015 as an example, there are teams from only three confederations – East Asia, ASEAN and West Asia.
While Australia is an ASEAN member, they don’t yet participate in the AFF Suzuki Cup, so for all intents and purposes neither South East Asia nor South Asia are represented.
Given the large population centres in these zones, especially in Indonesia and India, a significant number of people are tuning out. We know fans in Asia are parochial; if their team isn’t involved they aren’t interested. Getting football fans in Asia interested in Asian football remains one of the great challenges for the AFC.
If Asian football is to reach its potential in the coming years it cannot afford to exclude such significant population bases and the commercial benefits that come with it.
It’s possible to include them without expanding the tournament to 24-teams, a clunky number for a tournament.
Secondly, this change would increase the relevance of the sub-confederation championships. While some tournaments, such as AFF Suzuki Cup in particular, attract plenty of interest already, that’s not replicated across the continent. As an example, UAE, Iran, Syria and Yemen didn’t enter a side into last January’s West Asian Football Federation Championships.
To ensure each sub-confederation is represented I would suggest the 16 teams be allocated as follows:
West Asia – 4
East Asia – 4
ASEAN – 4
Central Asia – 1
South Asia – 1
That allocates 14 places, with two spots reserved for the defending champion and host nation. The confederation/s from which the host and defending champion emanate earn what is essentially an extra spot.
Of course, there are challenges with such a system.
Qualifying teams need to be known six to 12 months in advance, the earlier the better as far as organisers and respective national associations are concerned. Synchronising the calendars to ensure the sub-confederation championships take place at an appropriate time will be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
What might be insurmountable is the politics involved in such a change.
Again using the 2015 tournament as an example, 10 of 16 participating teams are from West Asia (11 if you include Uzbekistan, although they’ll soon fall into the new Central Asia zone). West Asia holds all the power in Asian football politics, and convincing them to reduce their allocation by half will be no mean feat. Some would say it’s impossible.
Yet if AFC want to ensure the AFC Asian Cup is indeed a true Asian Cup, with teams and styles from all corners of the continent, it’s a discussion that needs to be had.