Thursday, September 3 was not a good night to be an underdog in the AFC as the draw’s “Pot 1″ teams, for the most part, exerted their dominance over “Pot 5″ minnows. It might, however, have been a night of celebration for punters fond of betting the “over.”
Australia’s 5-0 thrashing of Bangladesh set the tone for the evening, followed by South Korea’s 8-0 dismantling of Laos, Iraq’s 5-1 conquest of Chinese Taipei, Iran’s 6-0 crushing of Guam, Saudi Arabia’s 7-0 romp over Timor-Leste, and Kuwait’s 9-0 victory over Myanmar.
Then there were the double-digit results, including UAE’s 10-0 cakewalk past Malaysia and a stunning 15-0 win by Qatar over Bhutan, who just months ago were the darlings of world football for having made it to the group stage.
In comparison, Japan’s 3-0 win against Cambodia was underwhelming, and Uzbekistan’s 1-0 result against Yemen could be called unimpressive. China’s scoreless draw against hated rivals Hong Kong, probably the biggest shock of the night, was practically buried by the avalanche of goals elsewhere.
These are the sort of results that test the strength of players, the spirit of supporters, and the thesauruses of writers. But they are also our first true look at what the 24-team Asian Cup, which will debut at UAE 2019, means for the AFC’s development.
The decision to expand the competition was met with criticism, and understandably so: while a move toward greater diversity in a tournament that has come to be dominated by East and West Asia is a welcome one, the fact remains that the AFC lacks the depth of UEFA and CONMEBOL.
But while we must wait until January 2019 to see that end result, one cannot deny that giving Asia’s smaller national teams a chance to play not one or two but up to 18 competitive fixtures over the next three years can only be to their benefit.
Compare this scenario to that of India, who in the last World Cup cycle played just eight ‘A’ matches: two World Cup qualifiers and three matches each in the 2012 and 2014 AFC Challenge Cups. The old “two-class” system allowed Asia’s strongest countries (at least those who hadn’t automatically qualified, namely the Big Three of Japan, South Korea, and Australia) to face each other in Asian Cup qualifiers that struggled to draw public interest, while the weakest nations fought against each other for the football equivalent of scraps.
Now there is room at the table for all, but it was clear from Thursday’s results that the table is far from level. These matches showed us, across the board, the gap in quality between the continent’s top and bottom. Football officials, media, and supporters from these smaller countries were able to see their team face globally-respected sides in a competitive match, in many cases for the first time.
And today, with their measuring sticks in hand, FAs of smaller nations can set off to improve their programs so that in another cycle or two, the results aren’t as lopsided. In time, as minnows grow mighty, they will become capable of shocking the old guard.
It’s a pattern we have seen several times this year, whether it was Bhutan’s playoff victory, Guam’s group stage debut against Turkmenistan and India, or Singapore’s away draw at Japan. These cinderella stories have shined the spotlight on Asia’s emerging nations, drawing attention to players and programs who can then attract more resources in order to succeed.
In the meantime, fans of Asia’s top teams must understand that these lopsided results are not embarrassing, nor are they unnecessary: they are vital guideposts along the path of the continent’s development in the years to come.