Which teams are favourites to win the AFC Asian Cup 2023?

Al Jazeera takes a look at the top five favourites to lift the AFC Asian Cup crown in Qatar.

Japan after losing the 2019 Asian Cup final
Japan lost an Asian Cup final for the first time in five appearances as Qatar lifted the trophy in the United Arab Emirates in 2019 [File: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

The AFC Asian Cup 2023, hosted by defending champions Qatar, starts on January 12.

A glittering array of star names are spread across some of the favourite teams vying to be crowned Asia’s best. Here are five of the best squads:

1. Japan

Defeated in the final by Qatar in 2019, Japan are the clear favourites to lift the Asian Cup trophy this time, which would mark a record-extending fifth crown. The resources of the highest ranked FIFA team (17th) at the Asian Cup are so strong that Japan’s coach, Hajime Moriyasu, has been able to leave out Lazio midfielder Daichi Kamada.

To make that decision even more controversial is the selection of Kauro Mitoma, who was initially ruled out for six weeks by his club Brighton when he injured his ankle in December. It’s a huge gamble by Moriyasu and one that could backfire spectacularly if Mitoma fails to return to full fitness – and, with it, the form that has seen him backed so vehemently by his coach.

Waturo Endo, who has seamlessly switched from Stuttgart to Liverpool this season, will provide the core stability in Japan’s midfield and is a proven performer.

The player who could ignite not only Japan but also the tournament itself, however, is Takefusa Kubo. If the Real Sociedad midfielder can transfer his La Liga form to the Asian Cup, then this could be the coming-of-age moment for a player who has been courted by Barcelona and Real Madrid through his childhood. If Kubo confirms his potential in Qatar, top clubs all across the world may well line up for his signature in the summer.

Japan have appeared in five of the last eight finals so, at whatever stage they are met, they will be the team to beat.

2. South Korea

From the player with the most potential to the player with the finest track record in Asian football, Son Heung-min is the captain of a Premier League title-chasing team at Tottenham Hotspur, where he has helped to fill the void left by Harry Kane’s move to Bayern Munich. He is also a three-time Asian Footballer of the Year.

Son will be the main focus of his country’s aspiration’s to close the gap on Japan’s record number of Asian crowns, having lifted the trophy on only two previous occasions – and not since 1960. South Korea, knocked out by Qatar in the quarterfinals in 2019, are balanced at the other end of the pitch by “The Beast” – Kim Min-jae. The Bayern Munich central defender, who helped Napoli end their 33-year wait for a Serie A title last season, will be the rock upon which his team can rely.

The trio of star names for South Korea is completed by Lee Kang-in. The Paris Saint-Germain forward could benefit from a little extra space offered if opposing defences are focused on Son. This, of course, could work in reverse, but either way, the forward pair will be a formidable threat as South Korea aim to end 64 years of hurt and lift the Asian Cup once again.

Son Hueng-min after losing the 2019 quarterfinal to Qatar
South Korea’s Son Heung-min cut a lonely figure after the quarterfinal defeat to Qatar in 2019 [File: Suhaib Salem/Reuters]

3. Saudi Arabia

Conquerors of Argentina in the group stage at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia are the clear challengers to the two favourites from East Asia.

The Saudi Pro League underwent a huge transformation in 2023 with the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane and Neymar headlining an importation of talent that lifted the competition to a new level. That uplift will, in turn, have had a trickle-down effect on the Saudi players already plying their trade in the league.

The training, tactics and experience that have come with the purchase of the world-class names can only benefit the growth of the Saudi game. Al Hilal’s Salem Al-Dawsari will point to his own development, though, after he rose to prominence with the winning goal against Argentina.

The 32-year-old winger wrote himself into history with the strike from the edge of the box and won the Asian Footballer of the Year for 2022 as a result.

Another player who could have a similar impact at this tournament by grabbing the goals and the headlines for Saudi Arabia is Firas Al-Buraikan. The 23-year-old has 16 goals and assists in 17 games for Al Ahli this season – the most by a Saudi national in the league.

Meanwhile, Nawaf Al-Aqidi will challenge for the accolades, or at least the regard, as the number one goalkeeper in Asia. The Al Nassr keeper is now accustomed to stopping shots in training from Ronaldo and Mane. The three-time winners and six-time finalists have not lifted the trophy since 1996.

4. Qatar

The defending champions will rightly brim with confidence in this edition, for which they have the additional strength of home advantage. That is an edge that many nations across the years will attest to, but it can also come with a heavy weight. The 3-1 win in the 2019 final against Japan upset the odds and handed Qatar their first Asian Cup triumph. 

Akram Afif remains the star Qatari name – etched in history by his penalty to seal the final four years ago. Snapped up by Villareal in Spain in 2016, the 27-year-old returned a hero to Al Sadd, where it all began for him, in 2020. Although Afif netted in the final warm-up match for this tournament, he couldn’t stop his side slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Jordan, which will have had something of an unsettling affect on the squad.

The highest FIFA ranking achieved by The Maroons prior to winning the Asian Cup was in 1993 when they reached 53rd in the world. Their victory against Japan propelled them to 42nd, but they have since slipped back to 58th – two positions below Saudi Arabia.

On the two previous occasions they hosted the Asian Cup, they reached the quarterfinals in 2011 – losing 3-2 in the final minute of the match to eventual winners Japan – and missed out on the semifinals in 1988 by one point in the then five-team group stage.

Qatar celebrate winning the Asian Cup in 2019
Qatar’s Hasan Al Haydos lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the Asian Cup in 2019 [File: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters]

5. Iran

Iran were the golden boys of Asian football in the 1960s and 1970s as they claimed three successive titles in 1968, 1972 and 1976. Since then, they have never reached the final.

That hasn’t stopped them courting success on the global stage, where the World Cup has been a joyful playground. They have made six appearances in the tournament, including the last three editions and their first coming two years after their final Asian Cup win. This has resulted in a climb as high as 15th in the world rankings, but they have never progressed past the group stage at a World Cup. They currently stand at 22nd – two places above South Korea.

Is a return to the final after more than four decades in the offing for Iran? One thing is for sure, with their performances on the global stage and the resulting rankings, Iran cannot be regarded as underdogs or dark horses at any stage of the event.

Source: Al Jazeera