World Cup 2014: Asia’s lack of success due to being left in isolation

Few Champions League players shows in just handful of draws before last night

Football Editor

Sixty per cent of the world’s population lives in Asia. Barring an improbable set of results last night in South Korea’s favour, the World Cup’s knockout stages will start tomorrow with not one of them represented.

Their companies are there. Three of Fifa’s six corporate partners are based in countries from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC): Sony (Japan), Hyundai/Kia (South Korea) and Emirates (United Arab Emirates).

The interest is there. Football is booming in many Asian nations, with major European clubs and leagues scrambling to grab a slice of the market via pre-season tours, foreign language websites and all manner of merchandising links.

But the players, they continue to disappoint. Prior to last night’s match the four AFC teams (Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea) had played 11 games, drawn three and lost eight. The Socceroos had the excuse of being in a tough group but the other three did not. Iran were unfortunate to concede at the last gasp to Lionel Messi but the only points had come via goalless draws by Japan against Greece and Iran against Nigeria, and South Korea’s 1-1 draw with Russia.

In 2002, when South Korea reached the semi-finals and Japan the second round, it seemed Asia had made the breakthrough. But they had the advantage of being co-hosts and had spent months preparing in training camps. In 2006 both went out in the group stage, in 2010 both in the second round. The only other occasion AFC teams have progressed beyond the group stage are in 1966, when North Korea made the quarter-finals, and 1994, when Saudi Arabia reached the second round (Australia made the second round in 2006, but had qualified though Oceania). It is not much of a return for 32 AFC entries into the World Cup, involving 12 countries.

Why are the Asian countries so poor? In four of the biggest nations, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s population, football is not the national sport. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are more interested in cricket while basketball, baseball and boxing are at least as popular in the Philippines.

 

China is belatedly seeking to make an impact in the sport but their domestic game, like that in Malaysia and Singapore, is beset by match-fixing. Indonesia has a particularly chaotic administration.

None of these issues affects Japan, South Korea, Iran and many other countries in the vast region. Three problems do. One is physicality. Not only do many Asian players lack the height and power of western and African players, they are perceived to do so by European teams and are thus less likely to be signed. Another is cultural or political differences, which lead to a degree of isolation. This applies particularly to players in the Arab world but also to countries such as North Korea, who played at the last World Cup. A third factor is the wealth of some domestic leagues, notably Japan, South Korea and on the Arabian peninsular, which make players less inclined than those in Africa to try their luck in Europe.

The consequence of all this is too few Asian players have experience at the highest level. Discounting the Aussies, as they are really from Oceania, of 777 players registered for the Champions League last season only five were from Asia: four Japanese and one South Korean. Just two played in the knockout stages – Manchester United’s Japanese misfit Shinji Kagawa and Bayer Leverkusen striker Son Heung-min, of South Korea. Along with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi, Son has made an impression on these finals, but unless he and his team-mates pulled off a shock last night none of the other 1.4 billion people in Asia did.

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