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Qatar welcomes half the world

By James Montague, for CNN
  • The AFC 2011 Asian Cup starts in Qatar January 7
  • It's the second biggest football tournament, after the World Cup
  • 16 nations, including Japan, North and South Korea, Iraq, and India will appear
  • First chance to see the organizational skills of 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar

(CNN) -- On Friday, the biggest football tournament you've probably never heard of will begin as 16 nations -- from Japan's wild Pacific coastline to the faded grandeur of Syria's Mediterranean beaches -- converge on the tiny emirate of Qatar for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

It is Asia's equivalent of the African Cup of Nations or the European Championship, and has in the past been seen as the poor relation to soccer's traditional super powers; but that could all be about to change.

Since South Korea and Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, the Asian game has exploded, with players like Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung now plying their trade at the very highest level.

The balance of power in football shifted even further last month when it was announced that Asian Cup hosts Qatar would now also stage the 2022 World Cup.

"The World Cup had to return to Asia," explained John Duerden, an Asian football expert and journalist based in South Korea.

"The continent is home to more than half of the world's population and deserves to host the biggest sporting event at least once every two decades. Qatar 2022 can help it go to the next level."

To prove the point just two of this month's Asian Cup teams, India and China, represent close to half the world's population by themselves. And although neither India nor China are likely to win the Asian Cup, the competition is diverse and wide open.

We have the right to dream to challenge Europe as the future of football
--Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed bin Hammam

"Just look at Group D," said Duerden. "It contains three 'Axis of Evil' members, teams from Australia to Uzbekistan compete, and it's open. Any one of seven or eight teams could win it."

Apart from the World Cup, no other football tournament can boast such a large audience. Hundreds of millions will tune in to watch the final in Doha's Khalifa Stadium on January 29, and that interest can only increase.

"There are 3.7 billion people in Asia," said Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed bin Hammam, who is seen as the main challenger to Sepp Blatter in next June's FIFA election. "We have the right to dream to challenge Europe as the future of football."

Duerden agrees that the future of football lies in Asia. "Asia is going to be huge in football this century," he said. "The increasing wealth, the massive population and the overall love of football will ensure that. The way it has developed is incredible."

The hosts: Qatar

All eyes will be on Qatar following their shock victory in the race to host the 2022 World Cup. Interestingly, the AFC agreed to move the tournament, usually played in the summer, to the winter to avoid Qatar's harsh temperatures.

Discussions are underway to controversially do the same for the World Cup. But what the world will see is a compact tournament - all the venues bar one are in the capital Doha, and the furthest distance between matches is less than 20 miles - and a series of magnificent stadiums, including the Khalifa Stadium.

But on the pitch the national team has been down on its luck in recent years, having never qualified for the World Cup.

Qatar beaten in tournament's opening game

Experienced French coach Bruno Metsu, who famously plotted Senegal's shock defeat of France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, can call on a young squad of players who have started to come through Qatar's expensive academy system bolstered by naturalized South Americans like Uruguayan born Sebastian Soria.

The holders: Iraq

Iraq's stunning victory in the 2007 final was one of sport's great fairytales. A team of footballers, representing each of Iraq's warring sectarian groups, and many living in exile under threat of kidnap and murder, united against all odds to win the Asian Cup.

"I'd lost two members of my family," explained Hawar Mullah Mohammad, the Kurdish international striker before the 2007 tournament. "Cars explode all the time. I had to pick up my two guns before going to practice, because I'd been threatened."

Despite the best efforts of the insurgents, who killed more than 50 fans celebrating victory during the tournament, the country came together in a rare show of unity.

Asia is going to be huge in football this century. The way it has developed is incredible
--John Duerden, an Asian football expert and journalist based in South Korea

But, conversely, since the security situation has improved, their results haven't. After failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, the team were suspended by FIFA over a sectarian spat between the head of the Football Association (a Sunni Muslim and former international who was once one of Saddam's favorite players) and the Shia-dominated Youth and Sports Ministry.

But much of that team still remains. Hopes will rest on their captain, striker and talisman Younis Mahmoud, who was nominated for the FIFA Player of the Year award, and midfielder Nashat Akram, who was signed by Manchester City only for the British government to refuse a work permit.

The outsiders: India

Despite having a population of over a billion people, this will be India's first continental championship in 27 years. Football is still regarded as something of a minority sport with cricket reigning as king.

But English coach Bob Houghton, who has been in the job since 2006, a lifetime in Asian footballing years, will be hoping that the Asian Cup will provide the spring board to spark an Indian footballing boom to tap into all that latent talent.

So keen was the AFC to include India in the football family that they were given a bye in qualification after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, beating opposition no tougher than Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Much will rest on the shoulders of India's captain Baichung Bhutia, often described as the Indian David Beckham for his commitment to the game, skill and good looks. The veteran is also that rare breed: a politically minded footballer.

He refused to carry the Olympic torch when it passed through India on its way to Beijing in 2008 in protest against China's actions in Tibet. India has been drawn against South Korea, Australia and Bahrain.

They will need a miracle to qualify for the second round.

The match to watch: Iran versus Iraq

There are "Groups of Death", and then there are "Groups of Death." When the draw was made, Group D was always going to provide the most politically enthralling encounters.

Iran, Iraq, the mysterious North Korea and the UAE will all go head to head. But there is no doubt about the tie of the round: Iran versus Iraq.

The two countries share a border and a bloody history. The Iran-Iraq war was one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century, an attritional stalemate that took the lives of an estimated one million people.

And today's on-going political, largely sectarian problems between the two countries mean that anytime the two meet, the match lives up to the legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michel's famous maxim that "football is war".

Whilst Iraq's football fortunes have improved somewhat since the dark days when Uday Hussein used to torture players for bad performances, Iranian football has been in decline since qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

A series of political scandals have rocked the game, including suspension from FIFA for political interference after President Ahmadinejad fired the head of the Iranian Football Federation.

But out-going coach Afshin Ghotbi, an American citizen and Iranian exile who once scouted for Team USA against Iran at the 1998 World Cup, will hope that national pride will be restored with victory over their bitter rivals.

Iran versus Iraq kick offs at the Al Rayyan Stadium on January 11 at 1615 GMT.

The favorites: South Korea and Japan

Japan and South Korea were revelations at the 2010 World Cup. Little had been expected from Takeshi Okada's Japan.

But their high-quality football was at times mesmerizing. Mercurial midfielder Keisuke Honda rightly won the plaudits. If he can repeat that form then Japan can go all the way.

Korea, on the other hand, has been steadily growing in statue since hosting the World Cup. The fact that European coaches now bemoan the fact that their Korean players are leaving for the Asian Cup is testament to their growing importance.

Park Ji-Sung is still the pivotal figure, who is in the form of his life at Manchester United. He has said this will be his last Asian Cup and will be hoping to secure South Korea's first continental title since 1960.

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Qatar welcomes half the world
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