Scott McIntyre takes a look at what faces the AFF nations in the wake of this week’s 2019 AFC Asian Cup draw.
Given that tournament draws are often more of an exercise in complex mathematics and straight suited formality, the AFC put on a lively show in the UAE this weekend as the 24 qualified nations learned their destiny.
One of the highlights was the on-stage banter between the guest ball extractors that saw Indian great Sunil Chettri quip he’d like to draw the Philippines given he was standing next to that nation’s all-time leading scorer, Phil Younghusband, and that they could get things started by tackling each other on the stage.
Both of those nations are likely to be doing far more tackling than work in possession given the groups in which they were placed, with the Azkals perhaps facing the toughest task of the four Southeast Asian representatives who reached the finals.
Drawn with South Korea, China and Kyrgyzstan, the immediate aim should simply be to ensure they are competitive, but that task is being hampered by the protracted situation around the issue of just who is likely to be tasked with coaching the side come January.
— Cedelf P. Tupas (@cedelfptINQ) May 5, 2018
Vietnam too were handed a very tough group being slotted in alongside former champions Iran and Iraq as well as a Yemen outfit that will be desperate to provide a 2007 Iraq-like fairytale for their troubled nation.
The one positive for the so-called smaller nations with the expanded 24-team tournament though is that not only do the top two in each progress but also four of the best third-placed teams. This means perhaps even just one win may be enough to secure qualification for the second round and that should give Vietnam a glimmer of hope.
Thailand are now firmly established as one of ASEAN’s leading nations and given they received a very generous draw with India, Bahrain and the hosts as their opponents not only should they be targeting progression from the group stage for the first time (setting aside the six-nation event in 1972) they will likely also fancy their chances of topping it.
With an outstanding generation of talent, a core group of players now with invaluable experience in Asia’s leading domestic competition and a wily coach who knows how to navigate his way out of the cut and thrust of tournament play, this is a wonderful opportunity for the Thais to go deep into the latter stages.
If they were to emerge on top of Group A they would then be paired with the third-placed finisher from one of the groups, where both the Philippines and Vietnam reside thus potentially setting up an all-Southeast Asian clash in the second round which would be huge for the region.
Undoubtedly ASEAN’s best hope though is the defending champion, Australia, who also received a far softer draw than could have been the case.
— Caltex Socceroos (@Socceroos) May 4, 2018
Familiar foes in Syria and Jordan will be difficult tasks, but ones that they should complete while Palestine are also unlikely to cause too many troubles. The aim for the Socceroos should be for nothing less than topping the group.
If they do, the Socceroos will also square off with one of the third-placed nations in the groups where Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are placed thus setting up potentially another way to construct a regional battle in the second round.
Elsewhere the tournament is littered with some fascinating sporting and geo-political matchups, but for those in Southeast Asia the hope must be that the region’s four representatives do ASEAN proud and provide a platform for the other eight AFF members to reach when 2023 rolls around.
Photo: Courtesy of AFC twitter feed