Football in Asia
The eyes of the football world have been firmly focused on the Far East on some top European, South American and African talents. But what of the region to the south of China and all the way down to Indonesia – a heavily populated and generally football-mad part of the world, but one which barely registers an international profile in the sport?
Southeast Asia covers 10 nations, none of which has even come close to qualifying for a World Cup finals competition in the last 50 years. The Dutch East Indies, which became Indonesia, did participate in 1938 but only after the withdrawal of Japan. From Myanmar to Timor-Leste, no country has threatened to become part of Asia’s elite, never mind a world power.
This is despite the region boasting a total population of over 600 million – almost 10 percent of the world’s population. Indonesia alone has over 250 million citizens, while the Philippines boasts almost 100 million, Vietnam 90 million and Thailand is approaching 70 million.
With the exception of the Philippines, where basketball is king, it could be argued that football is the most popular sport in the other nine nations in the region. Singapore, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste have limited human resources, with fewer than seven million people in each of these countries, but what has prevented the other six countries from reaching a higher level?
If we go back more than 40 years the picture was different economically, politically and geographically, all of which had an impact on the game’s development.
At the 1968 Asian Cup, Myanmar – then known as Burma – were runners-up to Iran, a country that has since become a regional powerhouse and qualified for several World Cups. The Asian Cup was not the tournament it has since become, with the finals contested by just five teams in a round-robin format. As south-east Asian representatives, Myanmar finished ahead of China, Israel and Hong Kong.
Four years later hosts Thailand finished third, defeating the Khmer Republic (later Cambodia) in the third and fourth-place playoff. The latter had defeated Kuwait – who played at the World Cup 10 years later – 4-0 to reach that playoff.
The tournament expanded to 10 teams in 1980 and has since continued to evolve but no south-east Asian team has finished in the top four since 1972. The region was engulfed by political turmoil and conflict in the 1960s and ’70s as communism took hold in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while Myanmar became increasingly isolated under its military dictatorship.
Indonesia’s opposition to communism led to its own internal strife and conflict, which gave rise to the rule of General Suharto – a classic strongman leader. Malaysia and Thailand had their own issues but less upheaval, though they were always nervously looking around at their neighbours and wondering what could happen to them.
Whether or not these conditions had an impact on the development of football in the region is debatable, but it cannot be denied that over the same period, football in other, often less developed countries, came on leaps and bounds.
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African countries began to make their presence felt at World Cups in the 1980s and Saudi Arabia’s progression to the last-16 in 1994 marked the first time an Asian team had gone that far. Things went further in 2002 when co-hosts and regular participants South Korea reached the semi-final and lost just 1-0 to Germany.
Along with Japan and Australia, the Koreans are now regular fixtures at World Cup finals, with various guest appearances coming from other Asian nations. But south-east Asian countries are never anywhere to be seen.
There have, however, been indications that change could be coming. The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 will certainly provide more opportunities, and the growing economic wealth and professionalisation of football in the region can help it build stronger foundations on which to develop football.
The current regional leader in this regard is Thailand. Since 2007, the domestic league in the country has gone from strength to strength and has seen the rise of several clubs that have constructed brand new stadia and excellent training facilities.
With the exception of a wretched 2016 campaign, have performed well in the Asian Champions League (ACL), including a quarter-final appearance in 2013. Muang Thong United will hope to put on a good show in 2017 with a squad that includes former Newcastle United striker Xisco. Like the aforementioned duo, Bangkok Glass, Ratchaburi and Chiang Rai United have new purpose-built football stadia and hope to challenge for the title in the years ahead.