Asia Cup 2019: Middle East teams hopeful for victory
With the 2019 Asian Cup kicking off on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, we look at the 12 Middle Eastern teams who have a chance of finding glory in the tournament.
So far, only five teams from West Asia and the Middle East have won the continental title. Saudi Arabia (1984, 1988 and 1996) Iran (1968, 1972 and 1976) have won it three times, while Israel (1964), Kuwait (1980) and Iraq (2007) have won it once each.
Can a team from the Middle East win this year's tournament in the UAE? Here are the hopefuls.
In what has been touted as the last chance for Emirati football's "golden generation" to win the cup, the hosts are likely to make it out of the arguably easy group A - which includes India, Bahrain and Thailand.
Yet, it won't be the same without star Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman, who is injured after playing for Al-Hilal a couple of months ago. Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni has adopted a slightly pragmatic style of play for the UAE team, which isn't attractive to watch or durable, judging from their recent friendlies during preparations for the tournament.
With a mission of proving their quality as ambitious hosts, Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil and Khalfan Mubarak will hope to lead the team with a fresh injection of motivation thanks to Al-Ain's great performance in the Club World Cup. Ismael Ahmed, Mohamed Abdulrahman (brother of Amoory) and goalkeeper Khalid Eissa all feature in the squad.
Carlos Queiroz couldn't ask for a better goodbye party after eight long years working in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nothing is official about the Portuguese coach's farewell, but with reports in Colombia stating that he could take over the national team from next March, it seems that one of the most beautiful stories in world football would be for him to dance his last tango in the UAE.
With a huge number of Iranian players floating in the European market - names like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Alireza Beiranvand, Karim Ansarifad, Saman Ghoddos and Sardar Azmoun - and an impressive World Cup campaign, Iran have been ranked as the best team in Asia for the past three years now.
A clear favourite to win the Asian Cup - and to celebrate lifting the trophy for the first time since 1976, three years before the Islamic Revolution - the team's slogan says it all: "One team, 80 million people, one heartbeat. Iran is going for the title."
The Saudi domestic league has improved remarkably with the growth in popularity thanks to a number of foreign players, but the national team is a different story. The Saudis hope to do something great in the Asian Cup and to be one of the contenders in with a chance of winning it.
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi - who somehow stayed the coach after a 5-0 drumming to Russia in the opening match of the World Cup - had come up with a strange decision: he is bringing just one natural forward to the tournament. This means excluding a few very talented players such as Haroun Camara, Ali Al-Nimr and others.
The Green Falcons are expected to play boring but effective football in the tournament, just as many of Pizzi’s previous teams have in the past. Saudi Arabia won the title three times, the last in 1996. Salem a-Dosari, Yehia al-Shehri and Fahd Mawald are hoping to lead the team to the first cup in more than 22 years.
Not many count on Qatar to shine this year, but the truth is that things are moving in the peninsula state. After long investment in the local football scene, it seems that Qatar is developing into a serious football nation on an Asian level. Akram Afif, Hassan Al-Heydos, Abdelkarim Hassan and Almoez Ali are all products of the Aspire revolution, that will be guided by Felix Sanchez Bas. He has worked closely with this Qatari generation from the academy levels - U19, U20, U23, and now the senior team.
While only a few football pundits give Qatar a real chance of shining in the tournament, they could be the biggest surprise and progress well. There is no real substitute for education and investment in football, and this is something Qatar has been doing perfectly in recent years. The Asian Cup will also be seen as the main dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup, which Doha will host.
Syria are tipped as the black horse of this tournament. Although they are part of the group of death - together with Palestine, Jordan and the reigning champions Australia - the Syrians boast a few of the top players in the region in their squad.
Omar Al-Somah has been the best striker in Asia over the past three years. Omar Khribin, Asian Player of the Year 2017, as well as goalie Ibrahim Alma, Omar Midani, and Mahmoud Al-Mawas all starred in the country's famous - nearly successful - qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup. The German coach Bernd Stange will miss his creative magician and leader - Firas Al-Khatib, but should still progress through group B.
The Lions of Mesopotamia are reaching the tournament at the peak of a renewal time.
With Slovenian coach Srečko Katanec, and a list of interesting players - Mohannad Ali, Ali Faez, Bashar Resan, Hummam Tariq and Ali Adnan - the Iraqis can dream a bit of going far in this tournament.
Al-Quwa al-Jawiya are becoming an Asian power at a club level - and now it is expected this success could permeate to a national team. It is hard to see Iraq doing the unbelievable and winning the cup - despite doing so in 2007 during the chaotic days of the civil war - but a narrow victory over - what is likely to be - an already promoted Iran at the end of the group stages is not a bad bet.
Jordan are at a transition point. After changing coaches six times in six years, without getting the desired result, it seems that now the Neshama are on the right track. Not because of the coaching staff particularly, but due to the players. The Jordanians enjoy one of the most promising players in Asia - 21-year-old Musa Al-Taamari, who is starring in the Cypriot League every week for APOEL.
Next to him you can find Baha Al-Faisal from Al-Wehdat and the experienced Yaseen Al-Bakhit. One of the surprises of the preparations was that Belgian coach, Vital Borkelmans, decided to leave the national team's top scorer, Hamza Al-Dardour, out of the final 23 list. Jordan could be a refreshing surprise in the tournament, or a massive disappointment for those back home.
Twenty years ago, Palestine wern't even a member of FIFA, and now they're writing their own history playing in a second Asian Cup in a row. The Palestinian team for the 2019 edition is probably the best they have ever produced. With a perfect mix of a few experience guys who have played the previous tournament in Australia, talented Israeli-Palestinians, professional Chilean-Palestinians and a quality edition of the MLS player Nazmi Al-Badawi.
Despite the saga that saw Abd Al-Nasser Barakat losing his post as coach, after Turki Alsheikh power games with Jibril Rajoub, it seems that Palestinian players understood something important: It doesn't matter who's the coach, the responsibility of doing Palestine proud in the competition is only up to them.
Qualification to round two would be an absolute shocker, but football is always surprising.
For a team that hasn't participated in the tournament since 2000, when they were the hosts, the Cedars will be one of the teams that will enjoy huge support in the UAE, thanks to the large Lebanese community in the country.
Hassan Maatouk, Rabih Attaya, Joan Oumari and Hilal Al-Helwe are tipped to be the faces of an aspiring Lebanese side, which will look to grab the third place in the group and to advance for the first time ever to second round of the Asian Cup.
Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic is looking to play in a solid style with 3-4-3 formation. With three points against North Korea and a draw against either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the Lebanese fans could kick-start the #FootballsComingHome hashtag on social media.
Yemen enters the tournament amid a horrific civil war, which has had a terrible and severe impact on all levels society.
A famine that threatens to kill millions in the country - brought on by a war between rebels and government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. With the war, there has been no local football in the country since the 2014/15 season - which coincided with the last Asian Cup tournament.
Slovak coach Jan Kocian basically gathered the team on a remote control from Oman, including setting up training camps in Qatar. Most of the players are not professional footballers, except for Ahmed Al-Sarori, who plays in the fourth division in Brazil, and Alaa Al-Sassi and Ahmed Al-Ghazi in Qatar. Anything but early elimination will be equal to winning the cup.
As for the Switzerland of the Middle East it is quite unclear what they can expect from the tournament. Dutch coach Peem Verbeek has been left without his first-choice goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi, yet he is expecting his players replicate the performances produced during the Gulf Cup last year in Kuwait, which they won.
Saad Al-Mukhaini will lead the team, while Khalid Al-Khajri will try to score more and improve his impressive goal ratio for the national team of 11 goals in 13 matches. With a win over Turkmenistan, a tie with Uzbekistan, and a loss to Japan, Oman should be fine for a second round spot.
Bahrain are not one of the continent's - or the region's - lions, to say the least.
With Czech coach, Miroslav Sokoup the team has made an impressive Gulf Cup campaign earlier in 2018, but it does not cover their weaknesses for a tournament like the Asian Cup. Bahrain has literally only one professional player in the team - Abdullah Yusuf Helal - who plays for Bohemians 1905 in the Czech League. The rest of the squad are based in the local league, mainly playing for Riffa or Al-Muharraq, the champions.
Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.