MELBOURNE, Australia — The Asian Cup kicks off today deep in Australia’s sporting heartland, where the Socceroos will attempt to win the continental championship for the first time.
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It would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Geographically, of course, Australia is a separate continent. In soccer terms, though, Australia became part of the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, leaving Oceania in pursuit of tougher competition between World Cups.
The Australians open against Kuwait in Melbourne, the first of 32 matches in the 16-team tournament. Defending champion Japan waits until Monday to take on a Palestinian team that qualified through a second-tier tournament, while other leading contenders Iran and South Korea are in action of a hectic opening weekend.
It’s the biggest soccer tournament ever staged in Australia, generating interest across the vast and densely populated Asian continent that extends from the Far East all the way west to Saudi Arabia.
Yet the Australian team faces competition for the hearts and minds of the public not just from the foreign teams featuring big-name stars such as Japanese pair Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
It’s still cricket season Down Under, with a test match between Australia and India ongoing in Sydney, and the international tennis season is just underway with tournaments on opposite sides of the country in Brisbane and Perth. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of season, starts January 19 at Melbourne Park, a short walk from where some of the Asian Cup matches are being staged.
In a nation where soccer has always resided in the shadows of other sports, the staging of the Asian Cup could be a seminal moment for the sport in Australia.
Tim Cahill, the most recognizable soccer player from Australia and a star at the World Cup in Brazil, said the Asian Cup “will affect football in Australia in a way that can never be affected in any sport ... this is our chance, this can be it.”
Ange Postecoglou was appointed late in 2013 with a mandate to harness and enhance Australia’s attacking style, yet the team has slipped in the rankings under his watch despite winning wide accolades for the system the Socceroos deployed in narrow group stage losses to Chile and Netherlands at the World Cup.
The World Cup on the whole was a downer for Asian teams, with only Iran earning a point — and that resulting almost entirely on its strong defense.
Japan, aiming to the first five-time winner of the Asian Cup, is the favorite again —four years after beating Australia in the final at Qatar 2011.
But the Blue Samurai squad is in a transition period, and coach Javier Aguirre is one of dozens of people under investigation by Spanish authorities amid fixing allegations in a league club game in 2011. Aguirre denies the allegations, and has vowed that the investigation won’t be a distraction for him or his team.
Japan and Milan forward Honda doesn’t like the favoritism tag.
“That doesn’t make sense because we are expecting some very difficult games at the Asian Cup,” Honda said yesterday. “Our opponents, all teams, are strong. Many teams want to beat us. Security (complacency) is the great enemy.”
Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawasima is expecting a lot from the players in front of him.
“Our minimum aim is to win the Asian Cup, we have to get victory,” he said. “We have to forget about the 2011 victory if we want to overcome the challenge of winning here.”
All 16 teams will have played their first matches by Monday. On Saturday, Uzbekistan takes on North Korea in Sydney, South Korea plays Oman in Canberra and Saudi Arabia faces China in Brisbane.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates take on Qatar in Newcastle and Iran plays Bahrain in Melbourne. Jordan plays Iraq at Brisbane on Monday after Japan plays the Palestinians in Newcastle, completing the first set of matches.
The Socceroos yesterday went through a mostly closed final training session for the match against an underdog Kuwaiti side ranked 15th among Asian nations. Although it won the Asian Cup in 1980, Kuwait finished 14th in 2011.
Postecoglou was aware that Kuwait, like many Asian teams, will adopt a defensive mindset. But he doesn’t plan to have the Australians take the same approach.
“It will be a step in the right direction in terms of results, but no, I won’t be happy if we win ugly, and the players know that,” Postecoglou said. “It’s not just about playing exciting, attacking football, it’s about playing winning football.”