Why Japan, Qatar are playing in Copa America

Chidi Nwoke

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Copa America Cup

The 2019 edition of the Copa America is currently taking place in Brazil, with elite sides set to battle it out for South America’s biggest trophy.

Two-time defending champions, Chile will like to make it a third, having won the 2015 and 2016 editions of the tournament. Although host nation Brazil will be eager to win their first major title since 2013 on home soil.

Japan and Qatar – both members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) – are participating in this summer’s competition, despite not being part of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL).

So why are Japan and Qatar set to take part in the Copa America this year? It is to fill in the remaining gaps in the tournament.

There are only 10 national teams in South America – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela – and so CONMEBOL had to invite teams from another federation to compete as a 12-team competition.

Initially, six extra teams – three from North America and three from Asia – were set to be invited in order to create a 16-team tournament, as was the case for the 2016 centenary competition in the United States.

But instead, in May 2018, CONMEBOL decided the tournament should follow the structure of all other tournament since 1993 and have 12 teams, therefore leading them to invite Qatar and Japan.

North America (Gold Cup) and Africa (AFCON) are busy with their own tournaments this summer, and European nations will be focusing on the Nations League finals.

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The next best country that was available to compete, is Asia, who ran their Asian Cup tournament earlier in 2019 – which leaves them free of scheduling conflicts.

There has been no official reason given for inviting Japan and Qatar to the Copa America over other Asian countries, though it’s likely to do with the outcome of the 2019 Asian Cup.

Japan and Qatar were the finalists for this year’s tournament, and though Japan were favourites to win the competition, it was won by Qatar 3-1 in the final. So, it is fair to assume that both were invited based on their finishes as winners and runners-up in the Asian Cup.

The 2019 Asian Cup was Qatar’s first tournament win, and they will also be hosting the next World Cup in 2022 – perhaps another reason for the invite.

Japan played in one previous Copa America in 1999, held in Paraguay. Japan missed the 2011 Copa America despite also being invited to participate due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

The country’s federation confirmed that they would be participating in the tournament despite the earthquake, they pulled out on May 16 citing difficulties with European clubs in releasing Japanese players. This led CONMEBOL to invite Costa Rica to participate instead, who accepted.

It’s also likely that AFC teams were selected based on their status as severe underdogs in the competition, with Qatar facing the daunting likes of Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay in Group B.

Meanwhile, Japan have been set with playing against Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador in Group B.

In 2015, Mexico and Jamaica were the two teams invited to participate in the Copa America.

Qatar have never played in the Copa America before and will be using the experience of the tournament to get used to a higher standard of football ahead of their hosting of the 2022 World Cup.