The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Proposal to expand Asian Cup sparks debate among region's football bodies
A proposal to expand the Asian Cup to 24 teams has sparked a debate among the region's football bodies, with commercial and developmental considerations on one side, and on the other a fear that it will dilute the quality of the competition.
The Asian Football Confederation's Competitions Committee recommended on the weekend that the quadrennial tournament be expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
Advocates say it will increase the likelihood that big commercial markets like China, India and Southeast Asian nations would be involved in the tournament, while also fast-tracking the development of smaller nations by exposing them to higher-quality opponents.
If China loses in February to Iraq in the final round of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup, and with India already eliminated, then the Australia-hosted tournament would be without representation from the two most populous countries in the world and probably Southeast Asia too — with a shared population of around three billion.
"In the end, all will benefit in terms of tournament profile and exposure and it will also provide significant commercial benefits that will help Asia as a whole," said Philippines Football Federation president Mariano Nonong Araneta.
The more powerful nations of Asia are concerned it will damage their teams' development to play against minnow nations, and harm the Asian Cup's image as an elite competition.
"The standards at the Asian Cup have improved in recent times and if Asian teams are to compete at the world level then it is important for everyone that it continues to improve," said Park Yong-soo, the head of the Korea Football Association's International Deparment.
"Having more teams is likely to reduce the overall quality. While we recognize that we have a duty to help the smaller nations develop, we need more time to discuss the issue."
According to the Philippines chief, the drop in quality will not be as severe as some may fear.
"We and other teams in Asia are catching up with the traditional powers such as Japan, Korea and Iran," said Nonong. "These teams need the chance to show what they can do and a bigger Asian Cup would be a great chance to do so."
For the smaller nations, a short-term drop in standard is a price worth paying.
Guam has been one of the fastest-improving teams in Asia in recent years. The tiny Pacific island nation has climbed from 201st in FIFA rankings in 2004 to its present standing of 162 and within sight of the continent's top-ranked 24 teams..
Gary White, the national team's English coach, has been at the helm for two years and believes that competing in the Asian Cup would help the national team go to the next level.
"Expansion would be a positive move from our standpoint as we are extremely aggressive in regards to being competitive," White said. "We believe we would claim one of the extra spots into future tournaments."
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