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Just over a year after Lionel Messi led Argentina to victory in the World Cup in Qatar, international soccer returns to the Middle Eastern nation with the Asian Cup.
The tournament kicked off on Friday in Lusail. Initially planned for 2023 in China, the 18th edition was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Qatar, already preparing for the 2022 World Cup with cutting-edge stadiums, won the bid in a second round, and a new date of 2024 was assigned for the premier international soccer event in the region.
Reigning champions Qatar, who secured the title in 2019, aim to defend their trophy against top-tier teams from Asian soccer. Notable World Cup-qualifying teams such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are among the participating nations in the tournament, set to run from January 12 to February 10.
The quadrennial tournament involves 24 teams divided into six groups of four, engaging in a round-robin format. The top two from each group, along with the four best third-placed teams, progress to the round of 16. Subsequently, the competition adopts a knockout format leading up to the final.
Japan is the frontrunner to secure the trophy for the fifth time, with South Korea, Australia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia following closely. Hong Kong stands out as a major underdog.
The Asian Cup provides another opportunity to witness the grandeur of the World Cup host stadiums. Lusail, the site of the historic World Cup final where Argentina triumphed over France after a thrilling 3-3 draw, hosted the opening game and will also host the final. Notable venues include Al Bayt Stadium, designed to resemble a tent, and Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, not utilized in the World Cup but set to host seven matches in this tournament.
Tottenham’s forward Son Heung-Min from South Korea takes center stage as a key attraction. Notable players from top clubs include Liverpool midfielder Wataru Endo (Japan), Kaoru Mitoma (Brighton), Takumi Minamino (Monaco), Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal), and on-loan Roma forward Sardar Azmoun (Iran). South Korea boasts talents like Bayern Munich’s Kim Minjae, Wolverhampton’s Hwang Hee-Chan, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Lee Kang-in. Distinguished coaches include Roberto Mancini leading Saudi Arabia and Jurgen Klinsmann guiding South Korea, while Hector Cuper, a two-time Champions League runner-up with Valencia, is at the helm of Syria’s national team.
Japan holds the record as the most successful team in Asian Cup history, clinching the title four times, most recently in 2011. Saudi Arabia and Iran each have three titles, South Korea has two, and Australia secured its first triumph in 2015.
The champion is awarded $5 million, the runner-up receives $3 million, and losing semi-finalists collect $1 million each. All 24 participating teams receive $200,000.
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