Bigger is better for 2019 Asian Cup

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By John Duerden

Bigger is not always better but is often more exciting and a look at the list of confirmed participants for the 2019 Asian Cup confirms just that.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) expanded the number of teams able to enter its flagship tournament from 16 in 2015 to 24 next year. Now we know the identity of all the two dozen nations that will see their teams compete next January and the tournament promises to be the best yet. The AFC got it right.

It is not just about the games but the anticipation. Increasing the number allowed opens up the tournament to the majority of the continent. Look at the Philippines and Vietnam with both qualifying for the first time in their histories. This adds 200 million interested participants to the mix next January. This is especially important for the Asian Cup which is not yet universally prestigious enough on its own terms to turn its nose at such things. Those parts of the continent that don’t play tend not to give much attention to the competition.Until that is the case, having a much greater part of the continent involved is a logical step forward.

The expansion brings the tournament right into the heart of Southeast Asia, an important region in the continent and the one that loves football the most. It is not just about having more teams from the region taking the pitch. Thailand would have made it without expansion with Vietnam in with a good chance. It brings it all closer to those who do not make it. The sight of the Philippines making it has not got down well with some of its neighbours. Not long ago at all and the likes of Singapore and Malaysia were defeating the Azkals without thinking too much about it. Now they are asking why they will be sitting at home in January while the men from Manila head to Abu Dhabi.

Adding eight teams into the mix makes the Asian Cup more meaningful for many nations who have a chance – ranging from good to slim – of reaching the competition. In the past, much of the continent was not even allowed to try and qualify. For 2015, there were only 20 to do so. It was a tournament cut off and remote. For the smaller nations, there was simply never any hope of making it. For the bigger, their places were greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. There were no celebrations in Riyadh, Seoul or Tokyo when the powerhouses booked their places.

The old order is changing. India took Group A, sealing qualification with games to spare. They were joined by Kyrgyzstan and also Turkmenistan. Central Asia is often forgotten as a region in terms of football and media profile. It is good then to see another nation from the region aside from Uzbekistan make and it was also good to see the delight there is in the other countries in doing so.

Myanmar was in with a real chance in the group until a few days before the end. At the very least, the competitiveness of it all and the need to get points home and away will be a great experience for a very young national team. There were similar patterns in evidence throughout qualification. Hong Kong would have made it for the first time since 1968 had they won their final game as would Tajikistan. Somehow Yemen made it while Taiwan was competitive all the way.

Just the excitement of qualification lends weight to the case for expansion. Then there is the delight in making it, the anticipation that will build over the coming months and then the feeling when January dawns and the teams take the pitch.

There have been concerns expressed about a drop in quality in the early rounds as the gate is opened a little wider. It is possible but quality in the initial stages has never been a strength of the Asian Cup brand anyway. Allowing more teams to compete with the best in the continent can only lead to an increase in standards of those that make it as well as those that missed out but believe they now have a chance if they can just make those extra steps.

The Asian Cup has finally been opened up to the whole continent. A tournament that was seen as remote by half of the AFC is now within reach. A tournament that fans and media knew would never feature their team was ignored in many places. This now seems to be changing.

In the case of the 2019 Asian Cup, bigger really does seem to be better.