Sunday, July 29, 2012
Message of success makes it to Asia
It is said that Asia as an idea or an identity does not exist and is merely a geographic convenience, important only in terms of what it is not - Europe or Africa - than what it is actually is. It is certainly true that in terms of philosophy, culture, language or religion there is not much that unites the two sides of the giant continent. If neighbours like India and China have so little in common then what unites countries separated by much wider distances?
Trade and economic links can certainly bring nations closer together but that is the case regardless of geography. Purely pragmatic relationships aside, perhaps it is only football that can stir the inhabitants of Seoul, Bangkok and Baghdad.
It is not easy to invoke Asian pride but invoked it was on Thursday evening at Hampden Park in Glasgow. That famous old stadium was the venue of the legendary Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup final in 1960, still talked about today by fans as one of the greatest club performances of all time by the Spanish victors. Half a century from now, will fans in Asia similarly be discussing Japan's 1-0 win over Spain in the opening match of Group D at the 2012 Olympics? Perhaps not but it was an important result.
In one of the traditional hotbeds of European football, Spain were humbled by Japan. The record books will show a narrow-looking victory but they really need to have an adjacent asterisk giving a little more detail as to what actually happened and how the highly-fancied Spanish - senior world and Euro title holders and winners of the 2011 Under-21 European Championships - were outplayed by an Asian team.
The 90 minutes, the hard work and the missed chances have been covered pretty well already but from the point of view of Asian football, it was a night to remember. The Asian Football Confederation's motto is 'Asia is the future' but for many outside the continent, that rings true more for the business and commercial side of the game.
Its best players are still sometimes seen as shirt-sellers and openers of new markets. Still there are questions as to whether Shinji Kagawa, someone who starred in two seasons in the Bundesliga, can adapt to the English Premier League. The question is why wouldn't he? Yet Asian players still have more to prove than most.
That is why the result against Spain in Europe was greeted with such delight. The exploits of Park Ji-sung, the best player Asia has ever produced according to Kagawa, at Manchester United helped but there is nothing like doing it at national team level.
Just as importantly, the message comes back to Asia. Too much do some fans in the continent look to Manchester, London and Barcelona before checking out their own backyards. This was a reminder that the best of Asia can compete with, and sometimes beat, the best in the world.
Whatever else happens over the rest of the coming weeks, that will not be forgotten. All over Asia, message boards and fan groups on Facebook were full of praise and no little pride after the Spanish defeat. Japan's success reflects well on a continent that doesn't always get the respect it deserves.
South Korea, the last country to get much of Asia behind them with their run to the semi-final, were on top for much of the goalless draw against Mexico but just could not find the goal that would have changed a solid performance into a great start. More significant however was UAE's narrow defeat to Uruguay, a team that certainly has what it takes to take home the gold medal in London.
Much is often made of the fact that Uruguay can produce such strong teams with a population of three and a half million and rightly so. What then to think of a nation that has about a quarter of those resources but still showed the South Americans a thing or two in their meeting at Old Trafford? UAE does not have the long history with the beautiful game that Uruguay has but despite their size and relative international inexperience, they were the better team in the first half and if they could have lasted a little longer with their one goal lead intact, who knows what could have happened?
Players such as Ismail Matar and Omar Abdulrahman looked as if they had been playing on the big stage for years. If the team had taken their chances, they would have taken point or points from Luis Suarez and company. In the end, the fact that UAE was disappointed to lose 2-1 to one of the strongest football nations in the world was encouraging.
Perhaps now, when there is talk of a possible transfer of a famous footballer to Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Al Ain, there will be a slight hesitation before 'semi-retirement' or 'oil money' is mentioned. That would be small but significant. Perhaps the next move of a world star to the Gulf will not be called a 'staggering decision' as it was when Asamoah Gyan left Sunderland. There is talent in the country, not in the ranks of the continental powerhouses, and the fact that they were able to show it to a wider world could be a game-changer as far as UAE football is concerned. Omar Abdulrahman is already attracting interest in Europe.
It is still early days but the days of Asian teams happy to make up the numbers at international tournaments have gone.
While it is welcome that Japan, Korea and UAE can improve the reputation of Asian football in the wider world - and it is important that early results and performances are not flash in the pans and lead to something more in the UK - what is just as important is that it helps Asian football in Asia.
If fans in Malaysia, India and Uzbekistan could revel in Japan's triumph then there is hope. Perhaps the future really is Asia after all.