Could an ASEAN group at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup be a good thing?

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden explores the idea of three Southeast Asian teams in the same group at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and why it would not necessarily be the worst scenario.

These are heady days for Southeast Asian football.

Never before have three teams qualified for the Asian Cup but, in January 2019, players from Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines will be heading to the United Arab Emirates in the hope of covering themselves with glory.

On May 4 (or May 5 for fans in the region), however, officials will be making the same journey in order to attend the draw.

All 24 teams will find out who, when and where they will be playing next January and, for the first time since 2007, Southeast Asia has a horse in the race.

There are four pots of six teams with each pot sending one to each of the four groups. There are no ASEAN representatives among the strongest seeds along with the likes of Japan, Iran and Korea Republic but Thailand are in the pot two, Vietnam in number three while Philippines – preparing for a first appearance at the tournament – are among the relative minnows.

What this means is that there is a chance – not a big one but a chance nonetheless – of the three regional teams being placed in the same group. It is possible that the trio will take each other on in the United Arab Emirates which would be a little ironic given that the draw for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s big biennial bash, took place in the same week.

The question is whether the three being in the same group would be cause for celebration for the region and, in balance, it would.

There are minuses however. For years, there have calls for ASEAN teams to break out of that bubble and there is a bubble. Foreign coaches and players who come and have success often find it hard to break out of Southeast Asia. We have also seen that it is only recently that local players are just starting to find proper employment elsewhere in Asia but these numbers are still small.

In terms of the national teams, there has long been a desire – at least on the surface – to try and fight their way out of the bubble.  The received wisdom was that the top ASEAN national teams are in need of more tests against good teams from elsewhere on the continent. What is not needed is more games with each other.

It would be a little ironic if, at the very moment that Southeast Asia has three teams in the Asian Cup then, they would end up playing each other, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand know each other well. Playing each other is not going to do much for their development and it may well be better playing against teams such as China, Syria or Jordan.

But there is a flip side to the coin or an opposite side to those balls that will be picked out in Dubai on Friday. Should the three teams be placed in the same group then there is one simple fact that will jump out at the millions of fans back home: one will be guaranteed to go to the knockout stage.

This is quite the prize. It will be a point of pride to have one Southeast Asian team in the knockout stage when the tournament really starts to get interesting. And then one of Thailand, Vietnam or Philippines may well get that tough test against one of Asia’s better teams in a do-or-die situation.

There is also the distinct possibility of there being two teams in the last 16. While the ideal situation would be both round of 16 spots to be taken by the Southeast Asian teams, it is certainly possible that the top seed will take one.

So third-place will also fall into ASEAN hands. With the structure of the competition, four of the six teams that finish third will go through. So the likelihood is that Southeast Asia would have two teams in the last 16 and that really would make for an interesting tournament.

On balance then, the idea of seeing Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand would not be an exciting one for fans at home (though seeing the games played out in the UAE would add at least some novelty) but familiarity would not breed contempt in this case.

It would, rather, guarantee the most passionate football region in the continent interest in the pointy end of the tournament and that is a prize that can’t be overstated.

The odds are low of it happening but fans at home would be happy if one of the groups in the Asian Cup had a distinctly Southeast Asian taste.