The axis of football

Have you been watching the Asian Cup? Thought not. You're missing out. Asia's 15 finest teams (plus Australia - who don't let mere geography come between them and an Asian football tournament) are currently ensconced in Qatar, battling it out.

I must confess, I didn't notice it was on until the knockout stages. Then again, neither did many Qataris, judging by the banks of empty seats in the group games. There has been little to no coverage of the tournament in the football-mad - as long as it involves English teams and players - British press, leaving me to follow events via badly translated agency copy and Fifa.com.

Fifa match reports read like Pravda editorials. Fifa awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar despite the region's lack of a footballing heritage beyond a preponderance of extremely dodgy internet feeds showing the Premier League. Fifa thus has a vested interest in making the tournament look like a glorious occasion. As a result, no match is anything less than a spectacular coming together between two giants of the game. The report of the Qatar v Japan match described one goal as a "sublimely taken free-kick". It looked to me like a miss-hit grass-cutter that the Japanese keeper threw into his own net.

Hagiographical reporting aside, the Asia Cup is a wonderful tournament. For starters, it has a fixture list designed to give George W Bush a heart attack. North Korea, Iran and Iraq were drawn in the same group, allowing present and former members of the Axis of Evil to get together, forget about toppling the Great Satan for 90 minutes and have a kickabout. Journalists were given the rare chance to write, "Iraq took on Iran" without having to add, "with thousands dying in the process". (Iran won 2-1. No one died.) Iraq are the Asian Cup holders. They beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final in 2007 - a win described as a "fairy tale". Except most fairy tales don't finish with: "And they all lived happily ever after in a nation engaged in a proto-civil war." This time, the fairy tale ended in the quarter-finals. Poor lads.

On a happier note, it was a relief to see North Korea's players still alive after their 7-0 thrashing by Portugal in the first round of the World Cup. I had half-expected to open a newspaper the following week to see grimy satellite photos of 11 graves on the outskirts on Pyongyang. Unfortunately they were knocked out in the group stage again, leaving me fearing for their safety once more.

The two strongest teams have been Australia and Japan. The "Socceroos" (if there is a worse nickname in sport, I don't want to hear it) only decided to be Asian in 2007. The Aussies had grown tired of playing against the likes of Fiji and American Samoa and wanted to test themselves against the might of Bahrain and Bhutan. But three-time champions Japan are the hot tip. Now, only South Korea stands between them and a place in the final. An economically stagnant, wet island nation with a dodgy keeper might triumph in Qatar. Roll on, 2022 - there's hope for England yet.