01/03/2019, 19.07
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UAE: diplomacy, war and football at kickoff of 17th Asian Cup

Football and politics will interplay in Iran-Iraq and Saudi Arabia-Qatar matches. For Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Yemen, this will be a first time. China’s presence will be low-key, as it continues to struggle for status after spending billions of dollars.

Abu Dhabi (AsiaNews) – The 2019 men’s AFC Asian Cup, the main men’s football (soccer) event in the world’s largest continent, begins on Saturday at 5 pm (local time) with a kick off between the host nation, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain. The final match will be held on 1st February in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium.

The various teams will vie for the title, won in 2015 by host Australia, which beat runner-up South Korea. However, the Cup will more than a sporting event since its teams include Saudi Arabia and Qatar, embroiled in diplomatic row for more than a year, and Iraq and Iran, which will meet on the pitch on 17 and 16 January respectively.

For the first time, 24 teams will compete instead of 16 as in previous editions, divided in six groups of four teams. The top two of each group and the four best third-placed will advance to the knockout stage.

Participating teams include Yemen, which is still in the middle of a bloody civil war and the greatest humanitarian crisis of this century; Syria, which just missed qualifying for the FIFA World Cup; and the Philippines.

For the UAE, this is the second time hosting the tournament. The first was in 1996 when the local team beat all the odds and reached the final. The matches will be played in eight new, state-of-the art stadiums, already tried out during the final stages of the World Cup for clubs two years ago.

The main contenders for the 17th edition of the Asian Cup are Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia. The newcomers are Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Yemen. Worthy of note is the return of Lebanon as well as Vietnam and Thailand.

Asian football was once dominated by South Korea and Australia, but in the latest edition of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Japan and Iran made a good showing. The latter just came up short in a group stage that included Spain and Portugal.

Syria’s participation is a source of interest. Like Yemen, the Mideast country has been plagued by years of civil war, but thanks to football, it has a stage to make an international comeback.

After spending billions in developing domestic players and hiring foreign stars, China’s team will be a bit low-key. Led by Italian World Cup winner coach Marcello Lippi, the Chinese team will field the oldest player, 38-year-old Zheng Zhi.

For the People’s Republic, the hiring of European and South American players at the end of their career has not done much to help the development of young Chinese footballers. In many ways, it has hindered a process that in past allowed the country to catch up with the world’s top in other sports.

Finally, some question marks still hang over the host nation. After spending huge amounts for the event, ticket sales might turn into a flop. Conversely, illegal betting remains a real a present danger.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”