The Socceroos’ quest for a second AFC Asian Cup crown begins this weekend in Qatar. Ahead of the tournament getting underway, here’s everything you need to know.
Five long years have passed since Australia’s AFC Asian Cup defence ended in the heat of Abu Dhabi in January 2019, knocked out in the quarterfinals by Jordan thanks to one highly unfortunate back pass by defender Milos Degenek.
Now, finally, Graham Arnold’s side has another opportunity to reclaim regional silverware and emulate Ange Postecoglou’s squad that won the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015.
Much has changed for the Socceroos since the last iteration, after a World Cup cycle that seemed to be heading for the rocks but ultimately delivered one of the great stories of modern Australian sport. Now those in green and gold have to translate that form and new-found respect on the world stage into a cup run.
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Unlike the last tournament, when Arnold had just taken over, this is a squad full of players he has developed for club and/or country, buoyed by both their performances at the 2022 World Cup and against some storied opposition since.
Ahead of the tournament getting underway on Saturday morning (AEDT), here’s everything you need to know about the AFC Asian Cup.
Who plays in the opening game?
The 2023 AFC Asian Cup gets underway at the Lusail Stadium when hosts Qatar take on Lebanon at 3 AM (AEDT) on Saturday morning.
When do the Socceroos play?
Australia are drawn in Group B of the 24-team tournament, playing India, Syria and Uzbekistan on the following dates:
Socceroos v India
Date: Saturday January 13
Kick-off: 10.30pm AEDT
Venue: Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan
Socceroos v Syria
Date: Thursday January 18
Kick-off: 10.30pm AEDT
Venue: Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, Al Rayyan
Socceroos v Uzbekistan
Date: Tuesday January 23
Kick-off: 10.30pm AEDT
Venue: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah
How can I watch the Socceroos?
All matches will be shown live and free on Network 10, and 10 Play.
Paramount + will also stream all Socceroos matches and the rest of the tournament.
The Socceroos squad
Goalkeepers: Mathew Ryan, Joe Gauci, Lawrence Thomas
Defenders: Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Aziz Behich, Nathaniel Atkinson, Gethin Jones, Jordan Bos, Thomas Deng, Cameron Burgess, Lewis Miller
Midfielders: Jackson Irvine, Riley McGree, Aiden O’Neill, Keanu Baccus, Connor Metcalfe, Patrick Yazbek
Forwards: Martin Boyle, Mitchell Duke, Craig Goodwin, Kusini Yengi, John Iredale, Bruno Fornaroli, Sam Silvera, Marco Tilio
The run of the draw has been kind to Australia, with what should be a comfortable first-up assignment against India – a repeat of the opening game from the 2011 Asian Cup, when Holger Osieck’s side cruised to a 4-0 win.
Though Syria’s ranking is not much higher than India’s, they may well prove rather stiffer opposition – this was a side that came within the width of a goalpost of knocking Ange Postecoglou’s side out of the 2018 World Cup qualifying play-offs.
Graham Arnold’s side will be very focused on securing maximum points from those first two games to ensure qualification from the group is assured before they meet Uzbekistan.
Even so, it won’t be easy – far from it, in a region packed with talent. Australia has historically struggled to make a quick impact, but Paramount+ pundit Andy Harper says it’s too glib to say that Arnold’s side have to focus on making a good start.
“It’s easy to say that, when no coach in truth sets out to start a tournament slowly,” Harper tells KEEPUP. “What we’ve found since we joined the Asian Football Confederation is that just about all of its teams are very nationalistic and very proud.
“Losing games at an Asian Cup is a big thing, and it’s the sort of stage where players go above and beyond. We’ve seen absolutely no indication that this tournament will be marked by any less fervour than before.
“You may see a difference in quality in some games but not in the sense of pride. For the so-called bigger teams, including Australia, playing against a team that’s fighting for its life, in a game that’s 0-0, is very, very difficult.
“The key for me is managing the early matches, harvesting points and finding rhythm that hopefully you can marry with quality as the tournament progresses. But it’s the toughest of assignments, it’s meant to be.”
World Ranking: 102
India enter the tournament as the lowest ranked side in Group B and will be hoping to cause a stir by securing a place in the knockout stages for the first time in five attempts.
The Blue Tigers qualified after winning three of their qualifying matches in 2022, securing back-to-back appearances at the Asian Cup for the first time in their history.
In 2019, India won their first game at the tournament in 55 years in a 4-1 win over Thailand, before falling a point short of a place in the knockout stages following defeats to United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Their form over the last year has been inconsistent, winning the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship, but have since only won one of their last five games, coming in a World Cup qualifying victory over Kuwait.
India will once again be captained by legend Sunil Chhetri in what will more than likely be his final Asian Cup.
India’s AFC Asian Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Amrinder Singh, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Vishal Kaith
Defenders: Akash Mishra, Lalchungnunga, Mehtab Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose
Midfielders: Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Deepak Tangri, Lalengmawia Ralte, Liston Colaco, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Udanta Singh
Forwards: Ishan Pandita, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Manvir Singh, Rahul Kannoly Praveen, Sunil Chhetri, Vikram Partap Singh
World Ranking: 91
Syria will look to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, after qualifying for the tournament for the seventh time.
Hector Cuper’s side qualified for the Asian Cup with ease back in 2021, finishing top of their group ahead of the likes of China and the Philippines. Since then, the results have dipped for Syria who missed out on qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and won only three out of eight games in 2023.
Now, they will face an old foe in the Socceroos once again, who famously knocked Syria out at the final hurdle of AFC 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying and then, beat them again at the 2019 Asian Cup to knock the Qasioun Eagles out of the group stage.
They will go into the tournament with two noticeable absentees in Omar Al Somah and Mohamed Al Mawas after Cuper decided against taking the experienced duo.
Syria’s AFC Asian Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Ibrahim Alma, Ahmad Madanieh, Taha Mousa, Maksim Sarraf
Defenders: Aiham Hanz Ousou, Mouaiad Alajaan, Amr Almidani, Amro Jeniat, Thaer Krouma, Khaled Kourdoghli, Moaiad Alkhoul, Ampntoul Rachman Oues
Midfielders: Ezequiel Ham, Kamel Hmeisheh, Mohammad Alhallak, Amar Ramadan, Mohammed, Osman, Elmar Abraham, Fahad Youssef, Jalil Elias, Ibrahim Hesar
Forwards: Omar Khribin, Alaa Aldin Yasin Dali, Pablo Sabbag, Antonio Yakoub, Mahmood Alaswad
World Ranking: 68
Arguably the most difficult opponent in the Socceroos’ group is a familiar foe in Uzbekistan.
The White Wolves have progressed to the knockout stage in all five of their previous attempts, including an appearance in the semi-finals at the 2011 edition, where they were defeated 6-0 by the Socceroos in Qatar.
In their last appearance, Uzbekistan were knocked out in the Round of 16 yet again by the Socceroos, this time on penalties.
Uzbekistan have only lost two out of their last 14 games, including making the final of the CAFA Nations Cup, where they lost 1-0 to Asian powerhouses Iran, who they also drew against in their most recent encounter in World Cup qualifying.
However, Srečko Katanec’s side were dealt a major blow on the eve of the tournament with star striker Eldor Shomurodov ruled out through injury.
Uzbekistan’s AFC Asian Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Abduvokhid Nematov, Utkir Yusupov, Botirali Ergashev
Defenders: Rustam Ashurmatov, Umarbek Eshmurodov, Khusniddin Alikulov, Muhammadkodir Khamraliev, Abdulla Abdullaev, Abdukodir Khusanov, Sherzod Nasrullaev, Farrukh Saifiev, Khodjiakbar Alijonov, Zafarmurod Abdirahmatov
Midfielders: Jaloliddin Masharipov, Oston Urunov, Aziz Turgunboev, Odiljon Khamrobekov, Diyor Kholmatov, Jamshid Boltaboev, Jamshid Iskanderov, Khodjimat Erkinov, Otabek Shukurov, Abbosbek Faizullaev
Forwards: Igor Sergeev, Bobir Abdiholikov, Azizbek Amonov
The two highest-finishing nations from each of the six groups will automatically qualify for the knockout phase of the tournament.
These 12 teams will be joined by the four best third-place finishers in the Round of 16. If Australia win Group B, they will play the third-placed team from either Group A, C or D.
If they come second they would face a date with the runners-up in Group F.
Four times Australia has entered the Asian Cup; twice they have gone out in the quarter finals, in 2007 and 2019 (both times under Graham Arnold), once they have lost the final (to Japan in 2011), and once they memorably lifted the trophy at Sydney’s Stadium Australia in 2015.
At that first tournament in 2007, Australian players spoke confidently of going through the whole tournament unbeaten; they quickly found out how hard playing in Asia would be. Expect no such hubris from the current generation.
One thing that may play in their favour is the shift of the tournament, which had been due to be hosted last June in China, to Qatar because of Covid. The Socceroos came runners-up in Doha in 2011, and had huge experience of playing in Qatar during their qualification for and admirable performances at the 2022 World Cup.
“We know the facilities all around us, we know the stadiums and we played the majority of our games here,” said winger Martin Boyle. “The lads really like it here, which is great and we’ve been made to feel very welcome here.”
The rest of the tournament
Group A: Qatar, China, Tajikistan, Lebanon
Group B: Australia, Uzbekistan, Syria, India
Group C: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Palestine
Group D: Japan, Indonesia, Iraq, Vietnam
Group E: South Korea, Malaysia, Jordan, Bahrain
Group F: Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman