What is the AFC Asian Cup?

The AFC Asian Cup is the second oldest, still playing, continental football competition in the world – and over the years it’s earned itself a rich and respected history. 

The first Asian Cup took place more than 60 years ago, in 1956. It was initiated by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), one of the six (FIFA) confederations. The 12 founding members of the confederation took part and the Asian Cup was born. Today, the number of teams competing has doubled as have audience figures and revenue.

Whilst the Asian Cup receives less attention globally than other continental tournaments, it is still recognised as a highly prestigious competition. And, for those nations that take part it is the pinnacle of the footballing calendar. 

Since its inception, the competition has been quadrennial, with the exception of 2007 when it was moved forward a year to avoid clashes with the European Championship and the Summer Olympics. 

Evolution of the AFC Asian Cup 

As with all competitions, the Asian Cup has evolved over its life-time. Proudly holding the title as the world’s second oldest still playing competition, coming second only to the Confédération Africaine de Football (AFC’s), Africa Cup of Nations. The Asian Cup has adapted to accommodate its growing confederation and avoid clashes with other competitions.  

Hong Kong was the birthplace of the competition and South Korea claimed the inaugural title. Since then 18 nations within the confederation have hosted the competition, with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Iran hosting it more than once. 

The tournament expanded in 1996 and 2004 and today we see 24 competing teams take part in the qualifiers. And, in 2006, Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation, despite not being part of the Asian continent, and the tournament evolved once more. 

TV Viewing figures have evolved over time too – the 2019 Tournament, held in UAE, almost doubling on the figures from the 2015 tournament held in Australia. 

Nearly 837 million fans connected with the AFC’s digital platforms throughout the tournament. This is compared to 434 million TV viewers during the 2015 tournament. 

The digital age has helped to facilitate and bolster the number of fans’ ability to gain access to games. Facebook recorded a staggering 169.4 million engagements. Perhaps the most notable increase came from Instagram. In 2015, it observed 1 million interactions with the tournament. This shot up to an eye-watering 132 million when the tournament was hosted in UAE. 

This data clearly demonstrates the popularity and interest the AFC has garnered in the last decade. The AFC  commented that ‘the game is now being played in a time zone conducive to the largest Asian markets of East Asia. And, the participants of the nine west Asian countries gives us confidence of the expected TV audience.’ This explains why fans on the Asian continent are watching in droves. 

The ability to access technology and view games live or when it suits fans around the world is another reason more people are switching on. And, as is often the case, hosting the tournament at a time when it doesn’t clash with other tournaments in the football season also provides fans with the chance to tune in. 

Format and Participants 

The 2023 Asian Cup will see 24 nations competing to lift the trophy. Since 1972, there have been two phases to the competition: the group stage and the knockout stage. And, since the expansion of the game in 2019, each team is placed in a group of four and plays three games. 

Entry into the knock-out stages is gained by coming first or second in the group and for the top four third place teams. The knockout stage involves a round of 16 who go head to head in a single-elimination tournament involving quarter, semi and a final game. 

Because the qualifying stages began in 2023 the tournament is referred to as the 2023 Asian Cup, despite the fact the knockout stages do not start until 2024. 

The Asian Cup brings some well known international teams who are expected to dominate the tournament, notably Iran, South Korea and Japan. But, the beautiful game is not known for its predictability and emerging teams such as Qatar could build on previous form and make an impact. In addition, some of the South Asian teams could potentially generate a storm and progress well through the competition. 

The 2023 Asian Cup will be hosted by Qatar who will be keen to build on their reputation as a nation of passionate football fans. It’s also an opportunity for the country to reinforce their role as ambassadors of the game, a country keen to showcase state-of-the-art stadiums and infrastructure developed for the World Cup.

But, perhaps above all this is their intention to grow the love of the game within the hearts of all the Asian nations and further grow those that adore watching, playing and discussing the game of billions. Because by doing this Asian football will unite its nations through their love of the game and the celebration of the way it brings its people together. 

Significance and Impact 

The Asian continent hosts a diverse range of nations which provides the competition with a rich blend of diversity and celebration. And the Asian Cup sets out to prove that football is not merely a game. Football is an extravagant infusion of culture, tradition and modernity. 

With more than 50 Premier League players being called up to the competition, it won’t just be the interest of the Asian nations that will be piqued. Audiences from as far away as the UK will be tuning in to watch the games as they’re played out on the world’s stage. 

Whilst the AFC will be willing the world to be watching as glory games, unpredictable upsets and unexpected upstages are all played out. They will also want audiences to be captivated by the cross cultural connections between the players – and the fans – in order to grow global interest in the Asian game. 

The AFC launched its One Asia, One Goal mission in 2022 in the run up to the 2023 Asian Cup Tournament. It is their intention to raise the profile of and grow the game on the continent until it is the world’s leading confederation. This hinges on the implementation of Seven Pillars which revolve around fans, governance and using football to facilitate social change. 

The tournament in Qatar is an opportunity to showcase progress in their mission. And, with Qatar demonstrating its ability to provide excellence in sports hosting, attention to detail in the planning and execution of the tournament and provide rich, meaningful, cultural experiences outside of the game, the One Asia, One Goal mission appears to be winning. 

The Asian Cup stands on the precipice of all that has gone before and the breathtaking excitement of what is to come. Invigorating football, a diversity of fans and a passion for driving the Asian continent to the forefront of the global stage. 

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