Uzbekistan names squad for AFC U-23 Championship | FOOTBALL

Asian Championship Football

Before Euro 2016, Asian football fans were, like everyone else, looking forward to watching the likes of Italy, England, Spain, Germany and Portugal. After all, such sides and their stars are familiar.

Teams such as Iceland, Hungary, Wales, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Republic of Ireland were little-known in the East. But they have since become noticed and feted.

The celebrations that greeted these six nations - four of them debuting at the tournament - sealing spots in the round of 16 will also be music to the ears of officials at the Asian Football Confederation. The same expansion will take place at the next Asian Cup in 2019.

In April 2014, the AFC decided that 16 teams was no longer enough and that the United Arab Emirates would host a 24-team tournament.

"We must market our product and generate income to sustain football across the continent, " AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said at the time.

"I am sure that the changes that happen will have big impact in Asian football and will benefit our member associations."

At the time, the situation in the East was different from Europe's. Asia had three tournaments. At the pinnacle was the Asian Cup, which had grown from eight to 12 in 1996 and then to 16 in 2004. Qualification for the 2015 edition was opened to 20 of the confederation's 46 full members.

The eight-team AFC Challenge Cup was the second-tier competition reserved for developing nations that gave the winners, Palestine in 2014, a place at the 2015 Asian Cup. Then there was a third-level President's Cup for the weakest.

The AFC decided to go with just one enlarged Asian Cup with qualification open to all. Whether losing the lesser two competitions was the right thing to do is a different debate, but the desire for expansion was understandable.

It was also risky. When former UEFA president Michel Platini pushed through plans to expand Europe's showpiece, there were plenty of misgivings. Most were centred on the feeling that a perfect competition was being messed with.

The depth of quality in Europe is the continent's strength and amply showed off by such a number. Former Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta was one who felt that less is more. "For the creme de la creme, you need to narrow that down to the best teams so that the tournament delivers the best quality and players in that moment. Fewer games is better for the quality."

Asia's quality does not run as deep as it does in Europe. Nobody regarded 16 teams in Asia as the perfect number, as the brand is not as strong. If quality really were the priority, eight teams would be best.

For the Asian Cup at this stage, quantity outranks quality, and it is better to have more nations involved. It needs to build a genuine continentwide brand. It is the biggest continental tournament in Asian football, but is not necessarily the biggest among Asian football fans and the media. Large parts of the largest continent devote more coverage to the Euros than the Asian Cup.

The Asian Cup, won by Australia in 2015, will be expanded to 24 teams.

Expansion will help in this regard. Having 16 teams all too often meant the big four from east Asia, then Australia, Uzbekistan and the rest coming from west Asia. It was unbalanced and lacking in diversity, which, when it comes to the world's most diverse and colourful continent, seemed to be a missed opportunity.

Add eight teams, and you are going to get representation from southeast Asia, the continent's most passionate football region and one desperate to be involved. In Europe, expansion has allowed the likes of Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales to join. In Asia, it could be India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. You are talking about bringing almost 2 billion people into the fold.

The numbers are important. The tournament is developing but is always going to be limited when there is little to no involvement from south Asia and southeast Asia. It could be argued that those regions should have to earn their own spots in a 16-team competition, but more exposure to the best of the continent in a tournament setting can only help motivate and improve.

Asia's big four teams, Iran, Japan, Australia and South Korea, collected a combined two points from opening World Cup campaigns. They all went back to the global stage stronger and wiser.

Although building a brand and a tournament off the pitch is necessary, there are still worries about possible mismatches on it. Euro 2016 suggests it may be OK, and anyway, thrashings can occur at any level, as Germany's 7-1 win against Brazil at the World Cup in 2014 showed. The deeper that Wales, Iceland and others go this summer, the more it will be encouraging.

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