For these finals, the first with 24 participants, the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC, redesigned the qualification phase: a three-tiered structure over four years had to whittle down all hopefuls to just 24 finalists. The motive for the elongated approach was straightforward: middle and lower tier nations needed more competitive football to grow and develop. The qualifiers were a success and nations benefited from the new format with Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, debutants in the United Arab Emirates, among the teams who substantially improved.
Everyone gained, but the idea of a level playing field is still utopian at this Asian Cup. The World Cup was another illustration of how Asian football is stratified with a vast gap between the true elite and the rest. Saudi Arabia were brushed aside by the hosts in the tournament's curtain raiser, but they regrouped in their final group game against Egypt. South Korea inflicted elimination on the defending champions Germany with a shock 2-0 win, the goals manufactured in the waning minutes of the game. Iran enjoyed a memorable victory over Morocco, drew with Portugal, but fell just short against Spain. Australia, arguably, disappointed, but Japan progressed via the fair play points rule to the knockout phase. It was a good showing by Asia, whose representatives had so disappointed at the World Cup in Brazil.
Those finalists will once again be the main contenders for continental glory. In total, just twelve different Asian countries have qualified for the World Cup finals. Eight of those teams have combined won every title since 1956, the year the Asian Cup was founded.
India have of course never won the tournament. They are a perfect illustration of how a host of nations for a myriad of reasons limp behind the main contenders. The Blue Tigers embody some of the ills and deficiencies of the Asian game and coupled with a sense of self-importance and false future promises they are embarking on a dangerous path. Vietnam, who return to the finals for the first time since hosting the tournament in 2007, serve as a role model: in 2018 they reached the final of the U-23 Asian Cup, played the semi-finals of the Asian Games and won the Suzuki Cup. They have invested in youth. The Vietnamese have made considerably more progress than India in recent years.
But what India and Vietnam share is that they do not have the resources and ecosystem (yet) to challenge the traditional powerhouses. In the United Arab Emirates, they will both relish the chance of progressing from the group stages via the third-place lottery. It may reduce the first round into a strange exercise of mathematics and a tournament within a tournament. At Euro 2016, Portugal manufactured their way to the last-16 with three draws.
The contenders will preserve their best for the knockout rounds. Iran must be the top favourites. They have performed consistently over the last four years under Carlos Queiroz. In Russia, they excelled and were precariously close to knocking Spain out of the World Cup. Their approach was daring, but modern: at times they out-thought and outran top European opposition. They were no longer the ambassadors of 'radical non-possession' which had made Iran hard to beat at the 2014 World Cup, but yielded little result. In qualification, Iran went 18 matches unbeaten. Sardar Azmoun, leading the line, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Mahdi Tarem have greatly bolstered Iran's attack.
Their achievements and vision on the field have been superlative and this tournament should be the crowning point of a few enthralling years for Team Melli, but the danger comes off the pitch: can the Iranians handle the pressure? Will they be organised enough? Will Queiroz's war of words with the Federation continue?
Any of Australia, South Korea, and Japan will pounce if Iran were to falter. They have all appointed new coaches after the World Cup, signalling that this is a transitional phase for them.
Hajime Moriyasu, a part of Akira Nishino's backroom staff at the World Cup, leads the Blue Samurai at a crossroads: he wants to move away from Vahid Halilhodzic's blue-collar style and instill the team once more with the Japanese footballing identity, based on possession and creativity. At the same time, the retirement's Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai after the World Cup and the omission of Eiji Kawashima, Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui, Takashi Usami, and Shinji Okazaki suggests the older generation is being phased out in favor of younger prospects, the likes of Ritsu Duan, Shoya Nakajima and Takumi Minamino. This is telling, because Moriyasu needs to balance multiple long-term goals: 2022 World Cup qualification, the medal dream at the 2020 home Olympic Games and a respectable showing at this year's Copa America, which also includes Qatar. By all means, Japan may meet defending champion Australia in a crunch quarter-final.
The Socceroos still have much of the personnel that won the continental title on home soil in 2015, defeating South Korea 2-1 in the final, but confusion reigns around the team: long-time coach Ange Postecoglou always advocated a progressive and dominant style, which made him loved or hated in Australia, but his successors have reverted to type, putting the nation's football identity firmly into the spotlight. What kind of football does Australia want to play and is this side without their retired talisman a transitional team? The Koreans have been reinvigorated by the appointment of manager Paulo Bento. The Portuguese has a checkered history, but in Korea, his coaching skills have created a team with options in attack and more purpose. With an influx of youth players and an Asian Games gold medal under their belt, South Korea will seek to go one better than last time.