Looking ahead to the big year for Asian football that will be 2024

With the AFC Asian Cup, Olympic Games and Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup coming up, 2024 is set to be a busy year for some of the continent's biggest stars such as Son Heung-min. CFIDC/VCG via Getty Images

As 2023 winds to a close, there is already plenty to look forward to in the world of Asian football next year.

And it will not even be a long wait before the action comes thick and fast.

From the continent's biggest tournament returning after a delay to the intrigue surrounding a complete revamp of the premier club competition, here are four things to keep an eye on in Asian football for 2024.

Continental glory on offer in Qatar

Held once every four years, the AFC Asian Cup was originally scheduled to take place in the middle of 2023. Qatar replaced China as hosts because of the country's "Zero-COVID policy." The tournament was again delayed to the start of 2024 due to the high summer temperatures in the Arabian Gulf.

When the tournament does eventually get underway on January 12, it would have been a full five years since Qatar were crowned the most recent champions of Asia.

Will a successful title defence eventuate, especially with the benefit of home advantage? Can either one of the usual heavyweights in Japan, South Korea, Iran or Saudi Arabia reclaim their status as kings of Asia? Or will one of the underdogs prevail?

Just over a year on from when it hosted the FIFA World Cup, Qatar will once again be the site of a massive international competition that promises to deliver plenty of excitement and drama.

How far can Asian hopefuls go at the Olympics?

While the football tournament at the Olympic Games does not boast the same glamour as the World Cup, it still holds its fair share of prestige.

Asia's representatives will be decided in the first half of the year and its worth noting that they have fared admirably in recent Olympic games.

In the men's competition, South Korea bested Japan for the bronze medal in 2012 with the latter also finishing fourth last time out. Japan also finished as runners-up in the women's competition at the London Olympics with Australia -- competing as representatives of the Asian Football Confederation -- reached the semifinals in the 2020 edition.

Considering how Japan caught the eye at the most recent FIFA Women's World Cup before losing in the quarterfinals, the Paris Olympics in 2024 will be another opportunity for Asia's hopefuls to see where they stand among the best in the world.

AFC Champions League to undergo revolutionary changes

After 21 years of the AFC Champions League being Asian football's premier club competition, massive changes are in store.

Once the current tournament concludes in May, the 2024-25 season will usher in the new AFC Champions League Elite. The format will see the top tier of Asian club football reduced from 40 teams to just 24.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out considering the European equivalent -- the UEFA Champions League -- is expanding the number of its teams from 32 to 36.

Under the AFC's new club competitions structure, there will be a second-tier AFC Champions League 2. This tournament will still allow mid-level clubs to test themselves against representatives from the bigger nations, while a third-tier AFC Challenge League will feature teams from countries with developing programs.

Race for the 2026 World Cup heats up

By the time 2024 is over, the race in Asia to qualify for the 2026 World Cup will be well and truly on.

Two match days in the second round of Asian qualifiers have already taken place, but this stage will be complete by the middle of the year.

Eighteen teams will then to the third round, which will have six of its ten match days completed by November 19.

There will be added intrigue given that the expansion of the World Cup means that at least eight Asian teams will be guaranteed a spot at the tournament.

Six of these spots will be confirmed upon conclusion of the third round of Asian qualifiers, which means there could be a rough idea of which teams are likely to be going through by the end of 2024.