The AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 is 100 days away.
The continent’s biggest ever international football tournament kicks off on January 5, and there are high hopes that it should also be the best Asian Cup yet.
Should, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to will, and it’s fair to say that excitement over the 24-team has yet to hit fever pitch.
Tickets have been on sale for almost two months now, but history has shown us that previous tournaments, or many games within them, don’t sell out.
The Local Organising Committee (LOC) for AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 is rallying around the banner of “Bringing Asia Together”, and to their credit have launched several campaigns and activations around across the four host cities; Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah.
From volunteer programmes to interactive roadshows and women’s campaigns, efforts are being made to entice a notoriously reluctant public to attend the tournament.
“The UAE is honoured to be hosting the most-expansive, most-inclusive AFC Asian Cup in history,” Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, Vice Chairman of the Higher Local Organising Committee said last month. “More teams promise more goals, more action and more drama, and we are confident that our long pedigree of hosting world-class sporting events has prepared us to offer an unsurpassed fan experience for football fans and first-timers alike.”
It’s no exaggeration that the success of the 2019 Asian Cup will rest – just as much as anything that takes place on the pitch – on the engagement of supporters off it.
In theory at least, every one of the 24 nations taking part should have a strong following.
The UAE’s proximity to many, though obviously not all, of the participating countries should make it relatively convenient for many fans to make the pilgrimage to what will be a very attractive time of the year.
The ambition to make this tournament a success is certainly there. But much will depend on the extent that supporters get on board in the next 100 days.
The 2015 finals in Australia might have been huge success, but the significant distances that supporters, from West Asia at least, needed to travel, meant that many stayed away.
The best attended matches were those that involved nations with strong communities in the hosting Australian cities. Matches involving Iran and South Korea had bigger gates than the poorly-attended fare by the Gulf nations or West Asian teams.
The UAE’s dramatic penalty shootout over champions Japan in the quarter-finals, for example, was watched by only 19,000 at Stadium Australia in Sydney, less than 25 percent of the total capacity of 84,000. Very few of those had travelled from the Emirates.
The UAE has in the past held the Gulf Cup twice, a 12-team AFC Asian Cup in 1996, and the 2013 FIFA U17 World Cup.
None will compare to the scale of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
In terms of facilities, transport and ease of access, the country is more than prepared for any influx of football fans. The experience that comes with handling the consistently high volume of tourists that pass through its airports, hotels and malls on a daily basis, will ensure that Asian Cup visitors will be well looked after.
But the degree of success of the tournament could ultimately depend more on the UAE’s population.
With Emiratis making just under 20 percent of the total population, the 24 nations have considerable expatriate communities across the seven emirates. And it’s the first time that there has been potential engagement of the different demographics to this extent.
“Literally millions of Asian fans living in the UAE will have the opportunity to support their national teams, many for the first time in their lives,” said Aref Al Awani, Tournament Director of the LOC. “Alongside the AFC, we share a vision for this tournament to truly ‘Bring Asia Together’ and unite all communities through the beautiful game”.
These communities, as well as the host nation’s own fans, could make or break this AFC Asian Cup.
It would be a shame, indeed an embarrassment, if the UAE’s three Group A matches were anything other than full houses.
In particular the UAE’s clash with India on January 10 could be, in the stands at the very least, one of the spectacles of the tournament, with the crowd at Zayed Sports City Stadium a juxtaposition of the white on one side and green and orange on the other.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of intriguing ties.
Group B has three highly-anticipated Levantine derbies between Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Palestine against Jordan on January 15 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi should bring out the long-standing communities of both countries, which number in the hundreds of thousands, in droves.
Meanwhile in Group C, the Philippines, playing in the competition for the very first time, will look for the backing of Dubai-based expatriates (over 700,000) against Asian powerhouses South Korea on January 7 at Al Maktoum stadium; while the 2014 AFC Champions League final first leg between Al Ahli and Guangzhou Evergrande showed that Chinese fans are willing to travel in their thousands to support their teams.
On January 16, the Group D clash between Iraq (100,000 expats) and Iran (over 400,000) at Al Maktoum Stadium promises to be one of the matches of the tournament, with as close to guarantee of a full house as you can get.
In Group E, Lebanon’s success-starved fans will get to see their team play an Asian Cup match for the first time since hoisting the tournament in 2000, and for the first time ever on foreign soil. They can expect plenty of support at their opening fixture against Qatar at Al Ain’s wonderful Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
In Group F, the four-time Champions and one of the favourites, Japan, will likely dominate proceedings against Oman, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and if the Samurai Blue hit the heights of their performance against Belgium in the World Cup, few would bet against them marching all the way to the final in Abu Dhabi on February 1.
Should these matches capture the imagination of the public, the long-term benefits on the game in the UAE, especially regarding the chronically low attendances, could be huge.
Before that, the organisers will no doubt make one last push to raise interest in the biggest football tournament to ever take place in Asia.
“The spirit of the tournament already lives through a number of important community initiatives and soon it will be time for the volunteers to get involved,” Al Awani said. “This will contribute to a truly unique sporting experience, unparalleled in scope and scale for any event ever held in the region.”
Let’s hope the message gets through to the public.