The Asian Cup is the preeminent football tournament in the continent, although it had very humble beginnings in 1956 when four teams played a round-robin tournament in Hong Kong, two years after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was formed.
Hong Kong’s Chang Chi Kong scored the competition’s first goal in front of 30,000 spectators against Israel, who won the game 3-2. South Korea went on to win the title ahead of Israel with the hosts third and South Vietnam fourth.
The Asian Cup is the second oldest continental football tournament in the world behind South America’s Copa America, which began in 1916.
The tournament has been dominated by the traditional powerhouses of Asian football with Japan having won the most titles — their fourth coming in a 1-0 victory over Australia in 2011. South Korea won the first two tournaments and were losing finalists in 2015. Iran won three successive titles from 1968-1976 and are still the only side to win three successive tournaments. Saudi Arabia won successive titles in 1984 and 1988 but were beaten 1-0 by hosts Japan in the 1992 final. The Saudis then won the 1996 title on penalties against hosts UAE.
Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Perreira has won the tournament twice, with Kuwait in 1980 and Saudi Arabia in 1988. UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni could match him in 2019 having led Japan to their 2011 triumph.
The tournament was held on a four-yearly basis until 2004, when the AFC decided to change the timing to avoid clashing with the Summer Olympics and the European Championships. The next tournament was jointly hosted by Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia in 2007 — the only time hosting rights were granted to more than one country. It was later called a “mistake” by then AFC president Mohammad Bin Hammam.
Australia became part of the AFC after the 2006 World Cup and won the title on home soil in 2015.
The tournament was expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the 2019 edition. Kyrgyzstan, Philippines and Yemen will make their Asian Cup debuts in the UAE.
The UAE will be hosting the tournament for the second time. They were runners-up on home soil in 1996.
Eight stadiums will host matches: Zayed Sports City Stadium, Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium and Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium and Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai, Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium and Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain as well as Sharjah Stadium.
The Zayed Sports City Stadium, which was built in 1980 and has a capacity of 45,000, will host eight matches, including the opener on January 5 — between the hosts and Bahrain — and the final on February 1.
The winners of the tournament will represent Asia in the 2021 Confederations Cup.