x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Japan or Korea are Asian favourites to win in 2022

Qatar will host Asia's second World Cup in 2022, but only two teams from the continent have any chance of winning it, according to the Asian Football Confederation president.

Australia are now part of Asia but the average age of the players in the Asian Cup is at a high of 28 years.
Australia are now part of Asia but the average age of the players in the Asian Cup is at a high of 28 years.

DOHA // Qatar will host Asia's second World Cup in 2022, but only two teams from the continent have any chance of winning it, according to Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president.

"We have two very good teams or, let me say, good practices in Asia: Japan and South Korea," bin Hammam said. "I believe Japan or Korea can be our team which lifts the World Cup."

Many felt Japan's Asian Cup semi-final win over South Korea on Tuesday was worthy of a final, and the two countries continue to reap the benefits of co-hosting the 2002 World Cup.

They have fully professional domestic leagues and players with European experience.

South Korea have played at the past seven World Cups and progressed to at least the quarter-finals of the past five Asian Cups.

Japan have featured at the past four World Cups, and have been Asian champion three times since 1992. Both brought youthful squads to Qatar, with an average age of 25. The average age of the Australia squad is 28, with key players Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Tim Cahill all on the other side of 30.

With Australia joining the Asian fold in 2006, the confederation has a strong core, but at the Asian Cup, there has been a sense that while teams from the eastern half were getting stronger, they were leaving those from the west in their wake.

Iran used to dominate Asian football but the last of their three Asian Cup wins came in 1976, and Afshin Ghotbi, their outgoing coach, felt that simply by reaching the quarter-finals in Qatar, his team had achieved "greatness" given their resources.

"Iranian football has a lot of issues to resolve if it's going to compete at the top level," Ghotbi said. "We have a lot of growing up to do. South Korea and Japan have created good models and show it in competition."

Saudi Arabia, another former powerhouse of the region, made a humiliating first-round exit after three consecutive losses, while a promising UAE team registered just one point.

And while South Korea, Japan and Australia can call on several players with experience in Europe, there is only one player from the Gulf region playing in any of Europe's top leagues: Oman goalkeeper Ali al Habsi, currently on loan at Wigan Athletic from Bolton Wanderers.

China and India, with the largest populations in the world, were also-rans in Qatar. Bin Hammam said: "I think we are doing a huge job. We would like to be equivalent to Europe. We know we have to close this gap between us."

By 2022, Bin Hammam's Qatar hopes to have built a competitive team, but it seems Japan and South Korea will once again bear the burden of expectation for Asia in 2022.