Sunday, April 15, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: April 14, 4:13 PM UK
Asian steps to World Cup glory
"Anything is possible in football, so not now but maybe in ten years' time an Asian country will win the World Cup," South Korea's Park Ji-Sung said last week. As talented as the Manchester United star is, he is no Pele, but that also holds true when it comes to predictions. The Brazilian's statement that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century is now the most famous, or infamous, reminder that he was far better with a ball of leather than one of crystal.
Park is not a man to make off-the-cuff remarks - whether speaking in Korean or English, he thinks before opening his mouth. Perhaps the wildest thing he ever did was jump into the arms of Guus Hiddink after scoring the goal against Portugal that took South Korea to the knockout stage of the 2002 World Cup - the first time the nation had progressed past the first round.
The Taeguk Warriors got as far as the semi-finals, so as someone who has played and scored in three World Cups, won four - and maybe soon to be five - English Premier League titles as well as playing in UEFA Champions League finals, Park is more qualified than anyone to predict when Asia can achieve the ultimate success.
Even so, ten years is too early, but 20 years? Anything is possible if the requisite conditions are met and these include:
Home advantage: Of the 14 World Cups held in Europe and South America, just one, Brazil in Sweden in 1958, has been won by a team from outside the host region. Continental advantage is important, as 2002 demonstrated in no uncertain terms. Korea disposed of a host of European superpowers before meeting Germany in the semi-finals. Just four years after Japan's debut on the global stage, which brought three defeats, Samurai Blue made it to the last 16. The tournament returns to Asia in 2022 but it is questionable what kind of advantage that offers for many of the continent's best.
While bidding, Qatar played upon the theme of a first World Cup for the Middle East, as opposed to a second World Cup for Asia, and understandably so. Despite sharing a confederation, Doha offers no help to the likes of Japan, South Korea and Australia (Seoul is the closest, 11 hours and six timezones away). European teams will benefit more than those from East Asia.
Obviously, the hosts and regional rivals such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq - who play most of their home games in Doha - will feel much more at home but it remains to be seen how many, if any, West Asian teams actually qualify and whether they will be at the stage to mount a major challenge. The odds are long. The one time a representative from the region survived the first round was in 1994. Perhaps China in 2034 could be the big one?
More international experience: Take Saudi Arabia, now the team is out of the running for 2014: the Green Falcons have the regional Gulf Cup to look forward to next year and then qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup starts the year after. If players from the kingdom continue to stay home, international exposure will be limited to the occasional friendly. This is a common refrain around the Middle East.
As Park explained: "The players also need to have the ability to play in Europe. The biggest thing for Asian players to remember is the football style is different in Europe - as is the culture - so they have to accept that. Mentally, they need to be ready, and very strong."
Japan and South Korea still lead the way in sending good, and increasingly young, players to the big leagues to play against the best. While there is some debate as to the optimal age to leave, there is little argument that, as long as there is regular playing time in one of Europe's strongest countries, it is good for the individual. What the J-League and K-League are dealing with for the first time - and not yet completely successfully - is how to manage the exodus of said talent while keeping the domestic set-up strong. In an ideal situation, such departures offer younger prospects first-team opportunities in a competitive league, and the virtuous cycle continues.
Domestic strength: It obviously helps to have a strong league. The J-League and the K-League have performed very well on the pitch in recent years, not only supplying talent to Europe but dominating the Asian Champions League. The next step is to reach the final of the Club World Cup - a competition in which Asian teams tend to finish third.
There is movement on the opposite side of the continent, too. The national team of Saudi Arabia doesn't contain the stars of a few years ago, but strength in depth is starting to grow. Traditionally, it has been mismanagement rather than a lack of talent that has held the league back. There are standout clubs elsewhere too, such as Al Jazira in UAE - the Abu Dhabi club are setting standards for their professionalism off the pitch and are starting to perform in the Asian Champions League too. And then there is China, with newfound transfer funds making a difference at the top levels at least, while Australia's current problems do not overshadow the fact that the long-term prospects for the A-League are very bright. The more clubs that improve, the better it is for everyone.
Intra-continental exchange: With many Asian leagues such as Thailand and China becoming richer, it encourages the beginnings of an Asian transfer market. Whether it is Koreans in China, Australians in Korea or Iranians in UAE, a continued exchange can only benefit the region and exposes players to the best of Asia on a regular basis.
Stronger continental competition: For Asia to consistently challenge the best in the world, the second- and third-tier nations need to improve. It is in the interest of the continent's big boys to see those a little further down the rankings strengthen. Japan benefits little from defeating Tajikistan 8-0 and would appreciate some tougher challenges. Higher quality in Asian Cups, Asian Cup qualifying, World Cup qualification, the AFC and Asian Champions League, as well as all the various regional competitions, would help to provide a wider, deeper and stronger foundation for more teams to challenge.
Youth development: The most important point for long-term success, and it is a weak one. All across the continent, standards vary wildly and in some places don't exist at all. Japan leads the way with long-established practices in place; then there is a gap to South Korea; and then there is a gap to the best of the rest. There are positive signs in Saudi Arabia, with some clubs trying to do what the federation has never really attempted. China has been in the same boat and, while little has happened so far, at least there is recognition that a system is necessary. But there is still an absence of clear vision at the top and it is frustrating, because policies implemented now would start to bear fruit within 20 years
Less politics and corruption: The game in countries like Iran and Indonesia is a mess thanks to politics and politicians, and corruption almost destroyed leagues in Malaysia, China and elsewhere. It goes with saying that eradicating such practices is a pre-requisite.
More professionalism in all areas: It is not just about the action on the pitch. The game is a package and all aspects - coaching, referees, media and facilities - are important. So is better administration - it wouldn't be an Asian Champions League or Asian zone of World Cup qualification if a team or two wasn't thrown out due to technical oversights, but that shouldn't be something to aspire to.
With all the above in place, Asian hands could be on that golden trophy sooner than you think.