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A Chinese performer poses beside the logo for the China 2004 in China at a ceremony in Beijing 26 October 2003. AFP PHOTO
FIFA - After months of preliminaries and qualifying stages, 2002 FIFA World Cup™ semi-finalists Korea Republic and thirteen other Asian qualifiers are just about ready to join hosts China and defending champions Japan for the 2004 Asian Cup finals. The Final Draw for the continent’s flagship competition is scheduled for 15 January in the Southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing.

The 2004 edition will run from 17 July to 7 August and be held in four venues: Jinan, Chengdu, Chongqing and the bustling capital city of Beijing. These finals will be China’s first time hosting the prestigious tournament which takes place every four years, and according to federation officials at least, they will be going all out to make an impression. “This is the first time we have had the privilege of hosting such a large-scale international football event,” admitted CFA Vice-chairman Zhang Jilong, “and we will do our best to make it the best one in the history.”

Powerhouses look to renew past glories
With this year’s tournament approaching quickly, Asia’s top dogs will be looking to renew their former glories – a fact that becomes plainly obvious with only a quick glance back at the qualifying rounds.

While three-time champions Saudi Arabia secured their finals berth with six straight wins from a relatively simple Group C, alongside Indonesia, Yemen and Bhutan, fellow three-time champions Iran finished top of Group D, only narrowly edging out runners-up Jordan on goal difference. The qualifiers were full of controversy and incident, and the finals promise to be no different.

The biggest surprise of the qualifying campaign came from Korea Republic, who eventually finished runners-up in their group, booking their place at China 2004 but disappointing along the way with two tough defeats to eventual group winners Oman and third-placed minnows Vietnam. The air of invincibility surrounding the Taeguk Warriors has surely been eroded and current Korean coach and former Portugal boss Humberto Coelho will be out to prove he is a worthy successor to the worshipped Guus Hiddink at the upcoming Asian Cup.

Hosts China, semi-finalists at the last Asian Cup in Lebanon back in 2000, are hoping for and expecting a first-ever title run in front of passionate crowds on familiar fields. Four years ago, the team narrowly lost in the semi-finals to eventual champions Japan (2-3) under former boss Bora Milutinovic. The immense expectation and mounting pressure may encourage the current Dutch coach Arie Hann to guide his team onto untold glories.

Dark horses hope to shock the continent
While Oman humiliated Korea Republic in Group E, war-ravaged Iraq rocked the very foundations of Group F by finishing in first place – edging out expected winners Bahrain. With a blinding 5-1 opening win over Bahrain, they began their surprising glory run to China 2004. And the finals field will do well to keep an eye on the determined outsiders. Iraq’s star forward Younis Mahmound, who scored seven goals and two hat-tricks in the qualifying rounds, will surely represent a formidable challenge to the best defenses of the traditional Asian powerhouses at China 2004.

Quickly improving Jordan will be another potential banana skin for the big boys. The team that skyrocketed into the Top 50 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking beat three-time Asian champions Iran 3-2 in qualifying and eventually finished runners-up on goal difference, finishing even with Iran on 15 points, though they lost the opening game 4-1 at Tehran. Under Egypt’s 1990 FIFA World Cup coach Mahmoud Gohary, the side are looking to continue their winning form in 2004 China – their first ever appearance at Asia’s premier footballing showcase.

“I am thrilled with the way my team is playing at the moment,” the boss said. “My players are really showing their quality at the moment.”

The sixteen qualified finalists:
China PR
Saudi Arabia
Korea Republic
United Arab Emirates

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