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The gap between Asia's best and the rest has closed; World Cup will be next
23.02.2024
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DOHA, Qatar -- History was made at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday, even before Akram Afif etched his place in Asian Cup folklore as Qatar triumphed 3-1 over Jordan and became just the fifth nation to go back-to-back in Asia's men's showpiece.

Reflective of the narrative that has come to define the tournament, it was the first Asian Cup final without one of Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, or Australia as a competitor. This quintet has mostly had the run of things in Asia for decades, providing nine of the previous 12 Asian Cup finalists and monopolising the continent's places at the World Cup; since 1994, of the 22 qualification spots Asia has secured at FIFA's showpiece event, only two -- China in 2002 and North Korea in 2010 -- have been drawn from beyond this cohort.

And yet none were to be seen on Saturday.

In their place were Qatar and Jordan, just the third time that two Arab nations had squared off in its decider -- a contest between "brothers," it was declared pregame -- and the third occasion that an Arab coach had led a team to this stage, with Jordan's Hussein Ammouta joining Saudi Arabians Khalil Al-Zayani and Nasser Al-Johar. Just 14 months on from Ammouta's homeland of Morocco becoming the first Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal, it was another point of pride for the region.

But in the great spirit of reflections penned immediately after a tournament, Qatar's second successive continental crown, as well as the showings of nations such as Jordan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, and sentimental favourites Tajikistan -- the tournament's "black horses," as their coach Petar Šegrt christened them -- also opens the door to a discussion on just what this past month in Doha means for the future of Asian football. So too, do the performances of the traditional powerhouses, who failed to fire across the tournament.

Because it seems the gap that once existed between the continent's best and the rest is not as wide as it once was. Or at the very least, it wasn't in Doha.

For those on the upswing, it appears an increasingly globalised game and the contemporary ease of access to quality information and data are driving a rapid acceleration in their tactical aptitude, physical preparedness and technical ability. Just one player in either squad in Saturday's final, Jordan and Montpellier ace Musa Al-Taamari, plays in Europe -- a fact that proved to be no barrier in reaching the final.

While there's inevitably still some flotsam to navigate, coaches such as Ammouta, Šegrt, Héctor Cúper of Syria, Shin Tae-Yong at Indonesia, and Uzbek boss Srečko Katanec are of a high calibre, and their ilk can be increasingly found across the continent. These coaches bring the acumen required to navigate the challenges faced by these rising nations while maximising the talent at their disposal.

This is supplemented by investment in not just senior setups but also junior national team programs, such as Qatar's Aspire Academy or the Uzbekistan junior setup. Players from across the continent are now receiving greater opportunities at younger ages to develop and, crucially, being exposed to top-level coaching. That's before they're even in a position to take advantage of the increased investment in club football that the Saudi Pro League and other competitions are seeing across Asia.

Thus, whereas major nations in the past could perhaps get away with relying on their inherent advantages or having the sheer talent of a few European-based players, the former minnows have sufficiently raised their level to a point wherein they are now good enough not only take a punch but respond in kind too. They do so mostly by being resolute, well disciplined, and taking their moments to press or transition with positivity and incisiveness. It's not always pretty, but it can be devastatingly effective.

The expansion of the Asian Cup plays a role here too, with the shift to a 24-team format giving nations more exposure to top-level football that has often been denied them by a funnelled AFC World Cup qualification process. And with four third-placed finishers advancing to the knockouts (like finalists Jordan did) there is an incentive to stay tight and competitive, increasing the number of sides that will build a style around being difficult to break down. That latter scenario is something that will probably also occur at the World Cup in 2026 as it grows to 48 teams, challenging not just the top tier but also those former mid-tier nations that now find themselves elevated in the pecking order.

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