SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -The uneven qualifying format for the Asian Cup is sparking debate around the region, with doubts raised about giving the continent's best teams a pass while denying the smaller nations a chance to learn from playing against their more accomplished neighbors.
This week's preliminary qualifying draw for the 2015 Asian Cup did not include the top nations - they are given passage through to the final tournament - while the smaller countries were locked out. That removed the kind of David vs. Goliath clashes that can clutter, for instance, European qualifying for major tournaments but which can also lend the sport much of its romance while also providing the occasional upset result.
Only 20 of the Asian Football Confederation's 47 members came out of the hat in Melbourne in the qualifying draw.
As usual, the host doesn't have to qualify. In this case, it's Australia. Although, the Socceroos wouldn't have had to qualify, anyway, after reaching the final of the 2011 edition.
Defending champion Japan and South Korea have also been given a pass due to their performance at the 2011 tournament.
It's more streamlined, but it doesn't sit well with everyone.
Thailand coach Winfried Schaefer, who saw his team drawn in a tough group with Iran, Kuwait and Lebanon, is among those who prefer a system where all of the confederation members enter the same qualifying tournament.
"It should be like Europe," Schaefer told The Associated Press. "Why can Japan and (South) Korea go directly? At Euro 2012, Poland and Ukraine were the hosts but Italy, England and Germany had to qualify."
"It is good for us to play good teams - even if we have Korea and Japan in the same group," he said. "That is okay that is football. Korea and Japan should have to earn their place at the Asian Cup just like everyone else."
South Korea, two-time continental champions, can plan more high-profiled and lucrative friendlies rather than qualifying for the Asian Cup, which takes place just six months after the 2014 World Cup.
"Generally, it has pros and cons," Park Yong-soo, head of Planning and Management at the Korea Football Association (KFA) told The Associated Press. "If you look ahead to the 2014 World Cup, the host Brazil suffers in its FIFA rankings because it can't play competitive games.
"Overall though, for us, not participating in Asian Cup qualification gives us the chance to play friendly games against stronger nations all around the world. We can even take part in some tournaments. Of course, the level of the teams in Asia is improving all the time ... but when we can, we want to play teams that are stronger than us and this gives us a broader perspective."
For the lower-ranked teams in the confederation, their route to the Asian Cup is only by winning the AFC Challenge Cup, held every two years. India and North Korea won the 2008 and 2010 tournaments respectively to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup, when they both exited at the first stage without winning a game.
North Korea has already qualified for 2015 after winning the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, leaving the rest of Asia's lower-ranked teams focusing on the 2014 tournament.
Nonong Araneta, president of the Philippine Football Federation (PFF), said he accepted the three-tier qualifying system and his nation's place in the lowest tier.
"We are prepared to play any team as we are finding ways to improve," he said. "This week we are in Bahrain to play a friendly and then we go to Kuwait and these are difficult games.
"At the moment, we are at the highest ever FIFA ranking (No. 147) behind Vietnam (No. 140) and Thailand (No. 139) in southeast Asia and we are climbing step by step. Perhaps the next time, we will be in the top 20 ranked teams in Asia but at the moment, we are happy to try and qualify through the AFC Challenge Cup, it is a good opportunity for us."
Cambodia is another nation that has to go through the AFC Challenge Cup route, but the national team's former coach Scott O'Donnell believes it could be beneficial in the long term if all nations qualified together.
"From a coach's point of view, not playing in the Asian Cup qualification is an opportunity lost. The only way teams like Cambodia can improve is by playing against better teams more often. It is not until World Cup qualifiers that teams like Cambodia get the opportunity to play teams outside of the ASEAN region."
"I would actually like to see pre-qualification qualifiers so the lower ranked teams get to play more competitive games. I know the Challenge Cup tries to serve this purpose but playing games from other regions in Asia will give the teams the opportunity to play against teams with different styles, in different climates and conditions."