Asian Football Teams
The Asian Cup, which wrapped up in Sydney at the weekend, was a wonderful event for so many reasons, including the football. Yet globally, it has lived in the shadow of the African Cup of Nations. And for good reason.
The Asian confederation represents the majority of the world’s population, some of its richest countries and many of its biggest economies. Yet its premier tournament boasted no team in Fifa’s top 50.
Africa, by comparison, has 11. In other words, the powerhouses of Asia – Iran (ranked 51 at the start of this month) and Japan (54) – are comparable to South Africa (52), who flopped spectacularly at the tournament in Equatorial Guinea.
When a team like Zambia – GDP per head of around $1, 500; population of 15 million – can make the top 50, it’s clearly not an economic or demographic issue.
Saudi Arabia coach Cosmin Olăroiu spoke of his side lacking both the strength and organisational nous (on-field and off) to be truly competitive. His entire squad plays in the Saudi Professional League; the squad of Africa’s top team Algeria includes players from Tottenham, Napoli, Parma, Valencia, Sporting, Porto, Dinamo Zagreb, Trabzonspor and elsewhere in Europe’s big leagues.
Jordan’s English coach, Ray Wilkins, bemoaned the way his players were outmuscled by a Japan side chock full of German-based players. His adopted country has good youth teams, including its Olympic one, “but we have to steer them in the right direction, because they have to become physically much stronger [and cleverer]”. To put it another way, he’d like to see them tested in Europe rather than playing in the Gulf.
But for Tom Byer, a development expert working with both the Japanese and Chinese systems, change has to come from below. “My philosophy to developing players is exactly the same as to developing these countries, ” the New Yorker says from Tokyo, his home of many years. “And that is: unless you can close the gap between the very best and the very worst, it’s very difficult to see a really big paradigm shift.”
He says Japan typically cruise through World Cup qualification, then didn’t know what to do when they came up against more seasoned opponents. It’s a problem Australia knows all too well from their years in Oceania. “Until we, Asia, the AFC, can start developing some of these other teams, these fringe countries that are starting to break through, [this will keep happening].”
One of those countries that needs to lift is China, where Byer has recently begun working with the Ministry of Education to get football back into schools. While he is heartened by the investment going into the game there, not to mention the national team’s early performances in this Asian Cup, he says there is still a long way to go.
“China only qualified for the 2002 World Cup because Japan and Korea automatically qualified [as hosts], ” he said. “I never really hear anybody talk about that. They always talk about how China has played in a World Cup. But let’s be realistic.
“They throw money at the top end of the game, believing they are one coach away from qualifying, and nothing happens. If people really do their homework and they zero in on what’s needed to get your country competitive, it really starts with the grassroots effort.”
After South Korea’s scrappy quarter-final win over Uzbekistan, coach Uli Stielike expressed similar concerns. “You have to recognise that we have to work a lot, a lot, a lot in Korea from the base, from the boys 6-7-8 years, on the development of technical skills.”
Even more fundamental for Byer is the football culture of a country. And football culture means family and community. “Most of the world’s best players are uncoached, ” he says. Instead, they learn from fathers, brothers, uncles and out on the streets. Which explains Africa.
“It’s probably not as organised, but there’s probably more kids that play it than they do out here. Everybody kind of looks at China and scratches their head and tries to figure out why a country with 1.3 billion don’t do well in football. Here’s the reality: nobody plays. And a lot of people don’t get that.”
Byer says anything is possible for Asia. Shinji Okazaki, one of Japan’s star strikers, feels likewise. “Of course, the culture and history of soccer in Asia is still short – insufficient even, I think, if you’re talking about having a proper go at the World Cup, ” he told Guardian Australia in the lead-up to the tournament. “But as the years go by, Asia is getting stronger, and the level of the Asian Cup is going up incredibly.”
Team-mate Gotoku Sakai agrees. “When you look at countries like Korea, as well as Australia and Japan, I feel those countries are improving a little at a time, to the point where they might be able to genuinely mix things up in Europe.”
Stielike, though, is less optimistic, accusing the confederation of insularity. “There is a lot of rivalry – Korea is looking at what Japan is doing, Japan is looking at what China is doing – we are observing each other and we forget a little the development of the football (in countries like) Spain, Germany, is passing by us. For the moment, the distance is going bigger and bigger. And this is something that we have to stop.”
No Asian team picked up more than a single point at Brazil 2014, and all finished bottom of their group. If another embarrassment is to be avoided when the world’s gaze shifts onto Russia or returns to Asia in 2022, there’s a lot of work to do.