Qatar set to host this month's Asian Cup

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By Michael Casey  www.usatoday.com

DOHA, Qatar — With the 2022 World Cup still more than a decade away, Qatar will get its first chance to prove it can host a major soccer tournament when the Asian Cup arrives Friday in the tiny desert nation.

The glistening city of Doha is still buzzing after overcoming rival bids from the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea to claim the 2022 World Cup. Now the hard work begins.

Qatar faces intense pressure to avoid any embarrassing, Commonwealth Games-like mishaps while attempting to showcase a country desperate for international recognition as more than just a wealthy mercenary that can buy talent and put up skyscrapers.

The hot weather — which dogged its 2022 bid from the start — won’t be an issue. The Asian Cup, which runs until Jan. 29, was moved from its normal summer timetable.

The biggest challenge will likely be logistics. Tens of thousands of soccer fans will stream in for the 16-team tournament that features Asian heavyweights like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia. They are counting on a transportation network with no metro system and a haphazard fleet of buses and taxis. The ticketing system at all six stadiums has not been tested on this scale since the 2006 Asian Games.

And then there is the question of what to do for three weeks outside the stadiums. Will fans be charmed by the souks and desert scenery or grumble over the fact they can’t buy a beer outside the four- or five-star hotels in this conservative Muslim country?

Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed Bin Hammam said Wednesday that Qatar’s Asian Cup “will be the best ever in the tournament’s history.”

“It has been a great effort by everyone and I’m sure it will be the best tournament ever and be the model for future events,” the Qatari said.

Qatar, which has the second worst team in the tournament, will be hoping for a miracle on home soil.

The favorites this year are the same as past tournaments. It’s a small club that since 1956 has included three-time champions Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Australia, making its second appearance in the tournament, has one of the strongest teams, as does two-time winner South Korea, which would like to end a 50-year title drought.

But as Australia found out in 2007, being a favorite with plenty of big-name players doesn’t mean all that much. It lost on penalties to Japan in the quarterfinals and the eventual winner was Iraq, which set off wild celebrations in the war-torn country.

“Our ambition is to be the champions again,” Iraq captain Younis Mahmood said. “Through winning the cup, we did what America and the government couldn’t do, which was to unite the country.”

Though the tournament doesn’t offer players with the star quality of Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, there are plenty of intriguing political back stories.

In the first week, fans can watch Iran and Iraq face each other, while Iran and North Korea, which were part of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” will also play one another. Australia and India — fierce cricket rivals — will face off in a rare soccer match, while South Korea and North Korea could face off in the knockout stage.