A step closer to Asia

The preliminary draw for the 2015 Asian Cup has thrown up some interesting early clashes.

The Australian government will soon release a White Paper on ‘Australia in the Asian Century.-

One would presume it mentions football because it-s hard to imagine a much more tangible link than Australia-s hosting of the 2015 Asian Cup. And for fans excited by the prospect of watching Asia-s 16 best international teams in action on our very own doorstep, the tournament drew just that little bit closer when the Preliminary Draw was conducted and the competition logo unveiled in Melbourne.

The logo is a spiffy number, depicting a player kicking a ball towards Asia and designed to represent the links between the four host cities and the sprawling Asian continent.

But what fans really want to see is the football and to that end the qualifying groups have thrown up some interesting clashes.

The fact that the draw was seeded means most of the big guns managed to avoid each other and of course Japan, South Korea and North Korea have already qualified - to be joined by the winner of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup.

But that doesn-t mean the draw hasn-t produced some fascinating clashes, none more so than in Group E where central Asian side Uzbekistan face rapidly developing sides United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

The Arabian Peninsula will brace itself when Qatar, Bahrain and Yemen battle alongside South-East Asian hopefuls Malaysia in Group D, while powerful Jordan will clash with neighbours Syria, tricky Oman and Singapore in Group A.

Iran, Kuwait, Thailand and a resurgent Lebanon will meet in Group B but it-s the remaining group which has produced arguably the toughest encounters, as 2007 champions Iraq get set to do battle with China, perennial Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Indonesia for the right to progress to the finals.

The five group winners and runners-up will all book their tickets to Australia, as will the best third-placed team from among the groups. And the prospect of watching the cream of the continent-s footballing talent is one which should excite every Australian fan.

With world class players like Japan-s Shinji Kagawa and South Korea-s Ki Sung-Yueng set to join some of the region-s established talent on our shores, the tournament should be a watershed for international football in Australia.

“The preliminary draw has thrown up some great contests, and we are sure to see some exciting matches over the next 18 months,” Asian Football Confederation Acting President Zhang Jilong said after the draw.

“We-re thrilled that AFC-s newest member, Australia, will be hosting Asia-s flagship national team competition for the first time.”

With the finals set to be beamed into homes all across Asia, the tournament represents one of the best chances this country will ever have to share cross-cultural experiences with some of our closest neighbours. Yet for all that potential, there-s no doubt Asian football still remains a mystery to many Australian fans.

It shouldn-t be, because anyone can open an atlas or trawl through a search engine; and communicating with fellow football fans across Asia these day is as simple as opening Twitter or ‘liking- a Facebook page. It-s these communities the 2015 Asian Cup will help bring together, as 16 of the region-s best sides get set to converge on Australia for a summer festival of football.

And if football is the world game and Australians are serious about engaging with our Asian friends and neighbours we will welcome them with open arms and a generous dose of hospitality for what will undoubtedly be the biggest football extravaganza to ever grace these shores.

The views expressed in this article are purely those of the author and do not reflect those of FFA or the Hyundai A-League.