Gulf nations fire up for the Cup

Sportsworld's Rahul Pathak casts his eye over the seven Gulf nations at the Asian Cup.

    Iran warmed-up for the Asian Cup by winning the
    West Asian Football Federation title in Jordan [AFP]

    Football fans of the Gulf will no doubt be among the most interested in this year's Asian Cup, with seven teams from the region taking part in the finals.

    The main challenge will probably come from Iran, and although the Islamic republic are three time winners of the competition, they have been seen as underachievers since their last Asian Cup triumph in 1976.

    Many thought the World Cup in 2006 would be the team's big breakthrough, but after two defeats and a draw in Germany, 'Team Meli' went home after the first stage.

    "I don't know why they didn't play so good, whether or not they were any problems, it was a good team so I really don't know the reason," Amir Shapourzadeh, FC Hansa Rostock and Iran striker, told Al Jazeera.

    "This year we have five or six legends in this team. 

    "There are young players at the back, so we hope we'll have a good tournament."

    New coach for Iran

    IN VIDEO

    Click here to see the full Sportsworld story on the Asian Cup's Gulf nations

    Iran's failure at the World Cup meant coach Branko Ivanković was replaced, and that change certainly had the desired effect as the team went on to top their Asian Cup qualifying group.

    Amir Ghalenoei, the new man in charge, hopes that momentum can be carried forward into the finals.

    "I think all teams will be hard to be beat, but there are five or six who can win the title like Australia, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia," Ghalenoei said during Iran training for the recent West Asian Football Federation championships in Jordan.

    "We hope to show a strong level in the competition and we have a good chance to win it for the first time in thirty years."

    Iraq aiming high

    Sportsworld's Rahul Pathak, left, speaks with
    Iraq coach Jorvan Vieira in Jordan [Al Jazeera]

    Iran's neighbour to the west may not have the same pedigree, but the fact they've even reached this stage is a victory in itself.

    Amid all the turmoil in their country Iraq still qualified for the Asian Cup finals as group winners, and new coach Jorvan Vieira is hoping their success can unite the country and give its people some respite from the troubles back home.

    "I'm not going only to participate," Vieira said.

    "There are four teams at this moment and all teams have a chance to pass in to the second round.  I'm working to go to the final. 

    "I can not promise because I don't have a crystal ball with me, but I'm preparing my players to mentalise, to face their problems, to absorb their problems, and go forward into the final."

    If you talk to any Iraqi or Iranian football fan, not surprisingly, they'll all tell you their team will win the Asian Cup this year.

    However more importantly, the Asian Cup will give people in those countries the chance to talk about football rather than politics, and if their respective teams can do that, then their supporters will see it as a success.

    Improving football standards

    Qatar defender Saad Al-Shammari will captain
    his side at the Asian Cup [Al Jazeera]

    For Saudi Arabia, success will be trying to improve on their last Asian Cup showing three years ago when they were knocked out in the first round.

    A recent 2-0 win over fellow Asian Cup finalists the United Arab Emirates suggests the Saudis should be looking for a quarter-finals berth at the very least.

    As for the UAE, their hopes will depend on the man who inspired them to victory in the Gulf Cup earlier this year Ismail Matar, while fellow Gulf teams Bahrain and Oman will do well to qualify for the second round as both find themselves in tough groups.

    Finally there is Qatar, gold medal winners at the Asian Games last December, who have what is regarded as one of the strongest national leagues in the region, reflecting the continual improvement of football standards in the Gulf.

    So while most people have Australia and Japan as favourites don't be too surprised to see a team from the Gulf lining up in the final in Jakarta on July 29.

    Rahul Pathak's full story on the seven Gulf nations at the Asian Cup can be seen on Al Jazeera's Sportsworld programme on Monday July 2 and Thursday July 5 at 1130 GMT and 2030 GMT, and on Tuesday July 3 and Friday July 6 at 0230 GMT and 0730 GMT.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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