China faces daunting qualifying group for 2015 Asian Cup
Socceroo legends John Aloisi and Alan Davidson took centre stage tonight when they conducted the draw for the qualifying tournament for Australia's 2015 Asian Cup - and the pair are unlikely to be popular in the world's most populous nation, China, after putting them squarely into what looks like the "Group of Death".
The Chinese, who are investing heavily in football development but who have so far had little to show for it save an appearance in the 2002 World Cup, will have to be at their best to make it to Australia in 2015 after being grouped with Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The latter two contested the 2007 final and are traditionally amongst the most powerful nations in the region, both having won the Asian Cup in the past.
Former Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick is in charge of the Hong Kong national team nowadays, but most would suggest his chances of making it back home for the final in a coaching capacity - at least with his current charges - are slim. Hong Kong was grouped with Vietnam, the UAE and Uzbekistan.
Big spending Qatar, who hosted the last Asian Cup, will be fancied to progress from a group also containing Malaysia, Yemen and Bahrain.
Singapore, Oman, Syria and Jordan are pitted against each other in Group A, while Iran will be favourites in Group B, which also includes Lebanon, Thailand and Kuwait.
Australia, South Korea, current holders Japan and North Korea have already qualified, as will the winner of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup.
The top two in the five qualifying groups will make it to Australia, as will the best third placed team.
Organisers have yet to make critical decisions over match venues in hosting cities for the tournament that kicks off in January 2015 - but they would like to see the A-League go into a temporary shutdown for at least part of the three week competition.
Michael Brown, the CEO of the Local Organising Committee, today said that the tournament, which will pit 15 of Asia's top soccer nations against hosts Australia, would likely prosper more if it wasn't competing against domestic soccer matches.
The Asian Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and, organisers say, will showcase Australia and its soccer industry to a potential television audience of 2.5 billion.
It will cost some $75 million to stage, with the bulk of the cash - $61 million - coming from Federal and State Governments in a 50/50 split. The rest is expected to be generated by ticket sales to a cumulative audience of around 500,000, a minimum figure organisers expect.
Sydney will stage the final, two semi finals, the third place play off and a quarter final. Melbourne will stage the opening game, and could host the Socceroos if they make it to the quarter final. Sydney gets the lion's share of critical games for two reasons - one financial, the other strategic.
The NSW government is investing more money in the tournament than other state governments on the eastern seaboard (Victoria, Queensland and the ACT) and finals matches are its reward. In addition, Brown said: "Melbourne is very busy at that time of the year with the Australian Open Tennis being staged and the singles finals will clash with the Asian Cup Final on January 31. But the opening game, on January 8, will be played there as well as six other group stage matches". But, he added, these were at present proposals awaiting final ratification by the Asian Cup Executive Committee next year.
Brown and his deputy CEO Shane Harmon were at pains to point out that they were not advocating a shorterning of the A-League season to accomodate the tournament, merely the creation of some clear air for it to capture the public's imagination.
"The two potential solutions are that we continue the A-League in centres which are not hosting games (Adelaide, Perth, Wellington, Newcastle, Gosford) or have a two or three week mid season break," Harmon said.