It's Time Asia's Biggest Football Tournament Captured The Fans' Imagination

By Ali Khaled
26 December 2018
AFC Asian Cup 2019, UAE, Football, World Cup
The AFC Asian Cup takes place in the UAE in January – and it might make you see the world in a different light

The World Cup can be a touchy subject in the Middle East. Let me tell you why. Every four years, the amazing tournament takes place, with thousands of people making a football journey to the host nation to support their team, while millions more cheer their countrymen on from back home.

At some point in a now fogged past, my younger self would have innocently asked, “Dad, when will Palestine play in the World Cup?” I likely wasn’t old enough to understand the facial expression that surely came back by way of reply, but some parties, you eventually learn, will never have you on the VIP list.

It’s a sad fact that if you happen to be from the Middle East, the pure joy of seeing your country play in a World Cup is a generally unattainable dream. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some memorable qualifications campaigns over the years, if not necessarily memorable results once there. Either way, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, Algeria, Iraq, UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all graced the tournament in my lifetime.

Naturally, when one of us makes it, we support these other nations out of a sense of solidarity with our Middle Eastern brothers… but there’s only so many times you can see your adopted team thrashed by the Germans.

Conventional wisdom says that the football fan from a perennially non-qualifying nation eventually needs a sweeter hit, a bandwagon to jump on that will – at bare minimum – guarantee a last 16 game to savour. The key to fake-authenticity? Support your new non-Middle Eastern side with a fervour occasionally bordering on fanaticism. Beirut famously gets draped in Brazilian and German flags for the duration of the World Cup, and other major cities in the region are not too far behind. Some fans have gone as far as getting tattoos of Argentina and Germany flags once World Cup fever kicks in. (Good luck explaining that one away post-tournament.)

So, you can only imagine the excitement that a football fan from the region displays when offered the chance to not only see their own country play in a major international tournament, but one that’s hosted in their part of the world. Finally, a moment for the Middle East to revel in the football spotlight, right? Well, no, actually. In fact, judging by the reaction – or lack of it – to January’s AFC Asian Cup, the answer seems to be a firm, meh.

Okay, we get it, so this is not a World Cup, but in football circles the tournament – this year hosted by the UAE – is a big deal. This, its 17th edition, is the biggest one yet, featuring 24 teams for the very first time. And yet still, interest in the tournament has yet to catch fire. With weeks to go before the UAE kick-off against Bahrain in the opening match, apathy at best – obliviousness, at worst – reigns.

The truth is that AFC Asian Cup suffers, wrongly, from bad PR. It doesn’t present as glamourous or sexy enough for fans obsessed with the Premier League, Champions League and individual stars like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Mohamed Salah.

You can blame a fixture clash for this as well. Domestic matches often coincide with Premier League, La Liga or Champions League fixtures, and the choice between attending an Arabian Gulf League match and watching the El Clasico, sadly, seems like no choice at all.

In 1996, the UAE held the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, and the competition proved a slow burner. Emirati fans only got on board as their country’s results improved. By the time the Whites reached the final (which they eventually lost to Saudi) there were wild celebrations across the roads of the seven emirates.

But what if the UAE struggle to get to the latter stages of this tournament? Traditionally, an early exit for the hosts is bad news – many fans will quickly lose interest in the tournament as a whole. For me, that’s the worst scenario here – an Asian Cup played to half-empty stadiums. But the reason for my fear has nothing to do with football. If you look closely, there’s a social and cultural element that goes far beyond the general broad strokes of the 90 minutes of action.

Football fandom often has little to do with football. It is about identity, a sense of belonging. It’s why people who have little interest in the game become fanatics during the World Cup. Why they paint their faces with the colours of their country’s flag. Why people adopt other nations as their own. It’s why I asked my father about Palestine’s chances. Everyone wants an invite to the party.

Few places are the melting pot that the UAE is – 200 nationalities and counting. The Asian Cup is an opportunity for the organisers to bring those disparate cultures together with football as the unifying force. How great would that be: a whole host of expats from all over the world embracing a new country and culture for the tournament. And while that might sound a little idealistic – football is, paradoxically, also one of the most partisan sports in the world – who can forget how an Iraqi team made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurds united a divided, war-torn nation after winning the 2007 Asian Cup in what has since become known as the “Miracle in Jakarta”?

Whether you’re talking about the region’s 100,000-strong Iraqi community or the two million plus Indian expats, the 700,000 Filipinas or the intriguing group that pits Levantine neighbours of Syria, Palestine and Jordan against each other, the Asian Cup has the potential for community and togetherness.

When the UAE played Thailand in a World Cup qualifier two years ago at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, few expected anything but defeat for the visitors. A half-empty stadium waited for the expected victory, which sure enough came – the UAE eventually winning 3-1 – but not before the several thousand Thai fans decked in blue had stolen the show. For 90 minutes, they packed the away end with a constant drone of chanting and drum beats. Even better was that fact the majority didn’t even appear to be football fans – some weren’t even Thai – people had simply come together for the occasion. Men, women and children together. It was a great thing to see. It’s football at its finest.

Right now, there are far more questions over the interest in the AFC Asian Cup than there seems to be expectations. Whether there is a spike in interestbefore the big kick-off we’ll know soon enough, but it will be a shame if this turns out to be a missed opportunity.

But if they’re looking for some positive PR then they could do a lot worse than billing the Asian Cup as the universal unifier it has the potential to be. Because your new football family is waiting for you – and all you need to do is turn up.