Westside Stories: The West Asian Guide for the Asian Cup

As the 2019 Asian Cup kicks off this Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, now is the perfect timing to check out the mood of the 12 Middle Eastern teams to play in the tournament.

So far, only 5 teams from West Asia & the Middle East have won the continental title. Saudi Arabia won it three times (1984, 1988, 1996), Iran also (1968, 1972,1976), while Israel (1964), Kuwait (1980) and Iraq (2007) have won it once. 

Can a Middle Eastern team win this year’s tournament at the Emirates? 

Well, exactly for this occasion we gathered for you the guide for the region’s national teams in the tournament. 

In what is seen as the last chance for the Emirati football golden generation, the hosts are likely to make it out of their arguably easy group A - with India, Bahrain & Thailand. Yet, it won’t be the same without Omar ‘Amoory’ Abdulrahman, their star player, who was injured while playing for Al-Hilal a couple of months ago. With Italian Alberto Zaccheroni as a coach, the UAE has adopted a slightly pragmatic style of play, which isn’t very nice to watch or durable enough, judging by their friendlies preparation for the tournament. 

With the mission of proving their quality as an ambitious hostess, Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil & Khalfan Mubarak will hope to lead the team who got itself a motivation injection thanks to Al-Ain’s great performance in the club World Cup, with the likes of Ismael Ahmed, Mohamed Abdulrahman (brother of Amoory) and goalkeeper Khalid Eissa - all featuring in the lineup.

Carlos Queiroz couldn’t ask for a better goodbye party after massive eight years working in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nothing is official about the Portuguese coach’s farewell, but with reports in Colombia saying that he is about to take over the local national team from next March, it seems that one of the most beautiful affairs in world football will dance his last tango in the UAE. With dozens of players floating the European market; names like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Alireza Beiranvand, Karim Ansarifad, Saman Ghoddos and Sardar Azmoun; and an impressive World Cup campaign, Iran is ranked as the best football team in Asia in the past three years now.

A clear favourite to win the Asian Cup and to celebrate for the first time since 1976, three years before the revolution. As their slogan says: One team, 80 million people, one heartbeat. Iran is going for the title.

Saudi Arabia
The Saudi League has improved remarkably. Thanks to Turki al-Sheikh, the growth in foreign players, the interest and marketing of the Saudi football is on the rise, but the national team is always a different story. The Saudis hope to do something great in the Asian Cup, as they are one of the contenders to win it. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who somehow stayed the coach after losing to Russia 5-0 in the opening match of the World Cup, had come up with a strange decision - bring just one natural forward in the squad for the tournament, keeping out a few very talented players as Haroun Camara, Ali Al-Nimr and others. The Green Falcons are expected to play boring but effective football, like many other Pizzi’s former teams. Saudi Arabia won the tournament three times, the last time in 1996. Salem a-Dawsri, Yehia al-Shehri & Fahd Al-Muwallad are supposed to lead the team and to bring the cup home after 22 years.

Not many count on Qatar to shine, but the truth is that something is moving in the small peninsula. After a long period of investment in the local football, it seems that Qatar is developing into a serious football country in Asian levels. Hassan Al-Heydos from Al-Sadd will lead a group of talented players.  Akram Afif,  Abdelkarim Hassan and Almoez Ali are all products of the Aspire revolution, that will be guided by Felix Sanchez Bas, who worked closely with this Qatari generation on the academy, U19, U20, U23 and now the senior team. While only few experts are giving them a real chance to shine, Qatar could be the biggest surprise of this tournament, that will go to the top stages. There is no substantial for education & investment in the elements of football, and this is something Qatar is doing perfectly in recent years. This run would be seen as a main rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup. 

Syria are tipped to be the ‘Black Horse’ in this tournament. Although they are part of the alleged group of death - together with Palestine, Jordan and the reigning champions Australia - the Syrians enjoy a few of the top players in the region in their squad. Omar Al-Somah, the best striker in Asia in the past three years; Omar Khribin, Asian player of the year 2017, as well as goalie Ibrahim Alma, Omar Midani & Mahmoud Al-Mawas, who all starred in the famous 2018 World Cup qualifications campaign. The German coach Bernd Stange will miss his creative magician and leader - Firas Al-Khatib, but should win the promotion from group B, with one of the emerging powers in West Asian football.

The Lions of Mesopotamia are reaching the tournament at the peak of a renewal time for them. With Slovenian coach Srečko Katanec, and a list of interesting players - Mohannad Ali, Ali Faez, Bashar Resan, Hummam Tariq and Ali Adnan in his second Asian Cup, the Iraqis can dream a bit of going far in the tournament. Al-Quwa al-Jawiya is becoming an Asian power in club level - and now it is expected that it will also permeate to the national team. It is hard to see Iraq doing the unbelievable and winning the Cup as it did in 2007 during the chaotic days of the civil war, but a narrow victory over an already promoted Iran on the end of the Group Stage, is not a bad bet for those who gamble.

Jordan is in a transition point. After changing six coaches in almost seven years, without getting the desired result, it seems that now the Neshama are on the right track. Not because of the coaching staff particularly, but the players side. The Jordanians enjoy one of the most promising players in Asia - 21 years old Musa Al-Taamari, who is starring in the Cypriot League every week in APOEL. Next to him you can find Baha Al-Faisal from Al-Wehdat and experienced Yaseen Al-Bakhit. One of the surprises of the preparations was that Belgian coach Vital Borkelmans decided to leave the national team top scorer, Hamza Al-Dardour, out of the final 23 list. Jordan could be a refreshing surprise in the tournament, or a massive disappointment back home.

Twenty years ago, Palestine wasn’t even a member of FIFA, and now they're writing their own history with a second Asian Cup in a row. The Palestinian team for the 2019 edition is probably the best Palestine has ever had. With a perfect mix of few experience guys who played the previous tournament in Australia, talented Israeli-Palestinians, professional Chilean-Palestinians and a quality edition in the MLS player Nazmi Al-Badawi. Despite the saga that saw Abd Al-Nasser Barakat losing his post as the coach after Turki al-Sheikh power games with Jibril Rajoub, it seems that Palestinian players understood something important: It doesn’t matter who’s the coach, the responsibility of putting the name Palestine high in this competition, is only up to them.

A qualification for the second round would be an absolute shocker, but football is always surprising.

For a team that hasn’t participated in the tournament since 2000, when they were the hosts, the Cedars will be one of the teams that will enjoy huge support in the UAE, thanks to the large community of Lebanese living in the country. Hassan Maatouk, Rabih Attaya, Joan Oumari & Hilal Al-Helwe are all tipped to be the face of an aspiring Lebanese side, that will look to grab the third place in the group and to advance for the first time ever to second round of the Asian Cup. Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic is looking to play in a solid style with 3-4-3 formation. With potentially 3 points against North Korea and a draw against either Saudi or Qatar, be sure the Lebanese fans will kick-start #FootballsComingHome hashtag on social media. 

It has become a tradition in Western Asian football, of teams that come to major tournaments from a state of civil war. This time it's something big. What has been happening in Yemen in recent years is a terrible and severe in levels that modern society haven’t dealt with until now. 

It's about famine. A famine that killing millions in the country, mainly due to a war being held in Yemen between rebels and government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. 13 million people live in Yemen are in a state defined as heavy famine - probably the worst in the last hundred years. Within all this mess - there is a national football team, despite there is no league running in the country since the 2014/15 season - since the previous Asian Cup (!).

Slovak coach Jan Kocian basically gathered the team on a remote control from Oman, including setting up a training camps in Qatar. Most of the players are not professional footballers, except for one of Al-Sarori, who plays in the fourth division in Brazil, and Alaa Al-Sassi Ahmed & Al-Ghazi in Qatar. Anything but early elimination will be equal to winning the cup. No less.

As for Al-Ahmar, The Reds, it is quite unclear what they can expect from the tournament. Dutch coach Peem Verbeek has been left without his first-choice goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi, yet he is expecting to show a curt of the ability his players produced in the Gulf Cup in Kuwait, which they won. Saad Al-Mukhaini will lead the team as the experienced grown-up, while Khalid Al-Khajri will try to score more and to improve his impressive goal ratio in the national team of 11 goals in 13 matches. With a win over Turkmenistan, a tie with Uzbekistan and a loss to Japan the Qabous family players should be fine for a next round spot.

The Bahraini team is not one of the lions of the continent’s, or even the region’s, to say the least. With Czech coach, Miroslav Sokoup the team has made an impressive Gulf Cup campaign earlier in 2018,  but it does not cover the weaknesses of the team in a tournament like the Asian Cup. Bahrain has literally only one professional player in the team - Abdullah Yusuf Helal, who plays for Bohemians 1905 in the Czech League. The rest of the squad are based in the local league, mainly at Riffa & Al-Muharraq, the champions.