Sunday, July 7, 2013
ESPNsoccernet: July 6, 9:13 PM UK
Asia asleep as talent blooms
Three Asian teams are in the last eight of the Under-20 World Cup. Uzbekistan took on France while South Korea and Iraq take on each other. They are quite happy to do so partly because of familiarity breeding contentment but also because even Asian teams feel that tests against continental cousins are easier than those posed by South Americans or Europeans.
Success in such tournaments suggests that football in the east has come a long way, yet the fact that Asia underrates itself as much as, if not more than, the rest of the world does, shows that there is still a long way to go.
Korea, Uzbekistan and especially Iraq have all played pretty good football in Turkey, a country that has long been a bridge from the world's biggest continent to the west. Indeed, the technically excellent Iraq, the Lion cubs of Mesopotamia, were perhaps the most impressive team in the group stage. Uzbekistan swatted aside Greece in the second round and Korea knocked out a highly-rated Colombia team. Yet, the inferiority complex is a harder opponent to eliminate.
It can be seen everywhere. Not much unites Asia but continent-wide there is a common clamour for the national team to hire a foreigner every time there is a vacancy - though of the six times Asian teams made the knockout stage at the World Cup, three were led by domestic tacticians. China chopped Gao Hongbo in 2011 to spend millions on former Real Madrid and Spain boss Jose Camacho. He was worse.
When it comes to playing talent, it's the same. The automatic assumption that a Brazilian striker is always going to be better than a local lad keeps many a Rio or Sao Paolo agent in business for many a year. The fact that an unhealthy proportion disappear unnoticed after six or 12 months just means more work for the businessmen who spend almost as much time shaking heads in disbelief at the constant stream of repeat business from Asian customers as they shake hands over another deal.
It is true that there is a lack of top-class attacking talent in Asia - even top leagues such as Japan and South Korea are positively stacked with samba strikeforces. It is the continent's football version of the chicken-and-egg question. Is the preponderance of Brazilian attackers a result of the shortage of homegrown goalgetters or the cause of it? In England, foreign players are usually cheaper than domestic talent. This is not the case in Asia and while there is a need for foreign players, they should be better than what already exists -something sometimes forgotten by coaches.
And then there is the more complex issue of the love that many fans in Asia have for the European game over its domestic equivalent. Wherever you go, it is not hard to hear so-called fans not only missing but actively dissing the local game while talking up the big boys from the west. The fact that Manchester United can charge their Asian followers more for a training session ahead of an exhibition game than most clubs on the continent charge for a league game and still attract many more spectators is a sobering reminder of the current situation.
Perhaps Asian success on the world stage is the best antidote. The 2012 Olympics were encouraging. Japan and South Korea were both in the semi-finals and deservedly so.
Success at the U-20 World Cup is good as far as it goes but nobody suggests that it is anywhere close to equivalent to the senior tournament. Some countries take it more seriously than others and it is fair to say that, on average, Asians sit in the former category. But this is not exactly the rest of the world turning up in Turkey in their swimming trunks a few days before the kick-off while the boys from the east spend years training, Bruce Wayne style, in the Himalayas in preparation - it is a genuine sign of the young talent that Asia can produce.
Perhaps the greater relative success is partly because these kinds of tournaments offer something of a level playing field for Asia. Unlike the senior World Cup, where Europe has almost three times the representation in terms of member federations and more than 15 times in terms of population, Asia is well-represented at the Olympics and youth tournaments. It still has some way to go to catch Europe and South America in terms of consistency, depth and success on the global stage but it could be argued that one reason why those two continents perform better in World Cups is because they have, and over the decades have had, much greater access to the tournament.
In Asia, only South Korea and Japan can claim any kind of regular experience at the World Cup and, after forgettable debuts, have proven their worth (indeed, a higher proportion of Asian teams made it out of the group stage in 2010 than European ones), with Australia, a member of the AFC since 2006, starting to do so. Put those three in Brazil and then there is only one space left for the other 43 members of the confederation - not much opportunity for the rest to take on the best in the world.
With more Asian success then perhaps young prospects like Yoon Suk-young or Takeshi Usami would not leave their domestic leagues at the first whiff of QPR or Bayern Munich interest only to spend the next months sitting on the bench - at best. Instead they could stay at least for a season or two longer and develop and thrive at home.
And then, perhaps, Asia would start to learn to love Asian competitions. At the AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur in early May, AFC staff could be heard chatting excitedly about the Champions League. Unfortunately, they were not discussing the big games in the Asian version of the previous night but the European matches in the early hours of the morning. Maybe one day, the Asian Champions League will one day receive as much play in the press as will the Asian Cup. Again, in Asia, the European Championships receive greater media attention. Incredibly, in some countries the African Nations Cup receives more column inches.
Asia is used to not being rated elsewhere in the world but not being rated by its own people is a more depressing state of affairs. Having two in the last four of the Under-20 World Cup would have been a nice follow up to the 2012 Olympics and a nice appetizer to the main course next year in Brazil. But unfortunately the Uzbeks were defeated 4-0 by France in Saturday's quarter-final.
Whatever happens for the rest of the tournament, the continent has a bright future. All will realise this someday, it just would be nice if Asia realised it before everybody else.