Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Eastern promise for the beautiful game
Asia was not just represented by four teams at the 2010 World Cup - a glance at the advertising hoardings at any of the 64 matches would have shown that.
Sony and Hyundai are as familiar around the world as the teams from their respective homelands, Japan and South Korea. And, as well as the traditional powerhouses, Indian and Chinese companies Mahindra Satyam and Yingli Solar boosted FIFA's bank account to move ahead of their football teams when it comes to visibility on the global stage - signposts for the future, perhaps?
In the past, the economic power of the continent, home to over half of the world's population, has overshadowed its exploits on the pitch. The East has long been seen as a place for money and merchandise by clubs situated in saturated European markets, with any signing of a Japanese, Chinese or Korean player habitually greeted with whispers of commercial benefits and not much more.
That mindset has been changing, helped hugely by recent events in South Africa. From the moment that Park Ji-Sung ran through the Greek defence to seal South Korea's comfortable win over the 2004 European champions to when Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger labelled Japan's Keisuke Honda a "genius", the reputation of Asian football rose faster than a hastily-hoofed Jabulani.
Not only did the two East Asian rivals impress on their way to the second round, where they came close to a place in the quarter-finals, North Korea - the 16th best team in the Asian Football Confederation according to FIFA - helped by giving Brazil - the governing body's world number one - a serious scare in the opening game of the Group of Death. Australia, new additions to the Asian family, fought back after a mauling at the hands of the Germans to draw with Ghana and defeat a highly-rated Serbian side.
The emotions in Asia were relief followed by pride. After the good work done in 2002 was followed four years later by a complete first-round meltdown in Germany, the pressure was on to do better and that meant getting teams into the second round. Japan FA vice-president and FIFA Executive Committee member Junji Ogura said ahead of the meet: "At least two should reach the second round. This is our dream and we hope they will do well. I expect all the teams to do well and show Asian football to the rest of the world."
There were those who thought that the avuncular Ogura set the bar a little high. Expectations were low before the tournament given the form of some and the World Cup groups of all. This not-quite fantastic four looked to be in for a pummeling from 'the six-pack' - the name the African press bestowed upon its soon-to-be successful sextet.
A single team in the knockout stage was a huge disappointment for the host continent while Asia was pleased with its pair of South Korea and Japan and the fact that, in the group stage, AFC members recorded more wins than their more numerous CAF rivals.
Some Asian nations may have had the resources but have lacked the big names that African football can boast. This may change as already in the short time since the end of the World Cup, transfer rumours involving Asian players have spread throughout the world like vuvezelas in the suitcases of fans heading through the departure gate at Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport. North Korean star Jong Tae-Se has left the J-League for German club Bochum, Kawasaki Frontale team-mate and Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima is now with Belgium's Lierse.
Moves to bigger clubs beckon for others. Shinji Kagawa has left for Borussia Dortmund, South Korea's Cho Yong-Hyung is linked with Aston Villa and Cha Du-Ri is now a Celtic player. Park Chu-Young could, if reports are to be believed, be on his way to Liverpool while few leading clubs would turn down a chance to sign Honda. It remains to be seen if West Asian stars, though Iran has long been an exception, will finally leave their stress- and tax-free comfort zones and head to Europe.
There is a danger in an increased flow of talent westwards. Many African leagues went too far in sending their stars to Europe. This may be good for the health of the national team in the short-term but without a solid base at home, it poses a problem down the line. There are more than 200 Nigerians plying their trade overseas leaving the domestic setup weak, a pattern that has been repeated all over the continent and one which launches a vicious cycle of reduced interest, sponsorship and standards in the local leagues.
The likes of China, Japan and South Korea are looking to find that secure middle ground which allows more players to be sent to the big leagues in Europe - around 20-30 is ideal, ex-Japan coach Philippe Troussier told me last week - while at the same time maintaining and improving the standard of the league at home to allow young talent to come through the system.
It is easier said than done and will take a good deal of time, but the resources and increasingly the will is there, more so after the relatively recent realisation that successful football structures are strongest when built from the bottom up and not the top-down (an idea not yet agreed with by some of the more cash-rich West Asian leagues).
As well as will, there is huge potential. Unlike Africa where the beautiful game already rules supreme, football is not number one in much of Asia. Baseball is the main game in South Korea and Japan, India bats to the beat of cricket while China has a thing for basketball. Summers such as these however, show that football can inspire and enthuse like no other sport. More of the same by their clubs at home, their stars in Europe and by their national teams in Brazil in 2014 could mean that bases will soon be loaded against rival sports and then the future really would be Asia - both on and off the pitch.