How Can Asian Football Develop into World Cup Contenders?

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor IJuly 1, 2014

The 2014 World Cup was a veritable disaster from an Asian football perspective. None of the AFCs four representatives reached the second round—the worst showing for AFC teams since 1998—and were left without a win to show for their efforts.

Given the positive aura around both South Korean and Japanese football in particular over recent years, it was a major blow for the AFC, which has undoubtedly been rapidly growing as a footballing power.

“We must bring our game to the next level and there is no time to wait," AFC president Sheikh Salman said in a press release distributed last week. "Football will not slow down and nor will the rest of the world."

His words bear relation to what has been seen in Brazil. While the Asian confederation points out that those sides from the Americas have performed well perhaps aided by locality, it is clear that the football world is growing.

Since the separation of major powers in Europe's Eastern region, there has been a spreading of top level talent in that area alone. Worldwide, it is also evident as shown by the emergence of the likes of Costa Rica, Algeria, Chile and USA.

More and more, countries not traditionally associated with being football powerhouses have been able to produce fine players in increasing numbers. The list of World Cup winning nations will not remain limited at eight much longer if the trend continues.

Asia, too, has more outstanding players than ever before and, indeed, they are spreading across an increasing number of countries.

Besides Japan and Korea, fellow AFC World Cup sides Iran and Australia demonstrated they have unique talents of their own at the competition. Iraq and UAE, meanwhile, have impressed in youth level competitions over recent years, while Uzbekistan are a massively improved force who almost shocked their way to a 2014 World Cup berth.

Then, of course, we come to China—my particular area of interest—and their ongoing footballing travails. At present, there is talent that needs to spread its wings and experience top level football.

The hope is, though, that the current wave of significant investment will see the Far East nation emerge from its slumber in a decade or so's time. If any country can spend its way to success, China can.

But, for all the positive developments in Asian football, the World Cup showed there is much to be done. Continental powerhouses Japan and South Korea floundered, while Australia and Iran gained respectability but just a solitary draw between them. It is simply not good enough.

Japan and South Korea's issues are slightly different to the rest of the continent. Technically and organisationally, they are well ahead of the curve. What they need, though, is better competition from within the continent.

Both side's issues are apparent to even the most casual observer. While different in style, both have wonderful technicians but are deficient in either penalty area. They have many team players, but lack leaders and individual match-winners. Many of their issues are in their own heads—they lack the belief to impose themselves on games.

To blame the lack of outstanding centre-backs and centre-forwards on simple genetics is too easy. Are the more powerful players not being picked up by academies or is it a simple issue with coaching? After all, the Korean side was one of the tallest at the competition.

It does not help that domestically both positions are frequently occupied by foreign players as teams seek to best use their quotas. As one such foreign player recently told me, there is a feeling that Asian defenders are naive, lacking "the tricks to succeed" as he put it.

With better internal competition from Asian rivals, such issues would be highlighted more often. Japan, in particular, came into the competition with an air of arrogance, yet when they took to the field, there was a lack of passion in their play. The dramatic step up in quality was seemingly unexpected.

Korea have hope in the form of Son Heung-Min, perhaps the best individual talent Asia possesses. He has shown he can win games on his own for the Taeguk Warriors, but they too must solve similar issues to Japan in both penalty areas if they are to frequently challenge world leading sides.

As with so many emerging nations, they are both producing talent in decent quantity. However, the positional spread is poor and weak links remain.

Ange Postecoglou's Australia performed remarkably well given the drastic changes made over the past year and have hope for the future. How to eventually replace the contribution of Tim Cahill will be one major issue, but the likes of Mathew Ryan and Mathew Leckie give hope for the years ahead.

Australia have benefited immensely from their move into the AFC region and would continue to benefit if standards can be raised in Asia. There are domestic issues to be resolved, but in general there is reason to be hopeful.

What Asia desperately needs is to expand the pool of countries capable of challenging for World Cup berths through better youth coaching. There is money in Asian football at the top level in many countries, but investment in the grass roots game is lacking. Administrative issues also hold back many in South-East Asia in particular.

Given the passion for football right across the continent, it is a real shame that only now is progress really being made. Places like Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Thailand and China, with the interest football generates, have real potential in the game that can and must be harnessed in the years ahead.

If such countries can begin to catch the continent's elite, it can only be a good thing. For some, though, it is a bigger challenge than others—often extending beyond the remit of football alone.

Japan and Korea must continue with what they are doing—with the talent being produced evidence that they are doing something right. Both have young squads who will learn from this experience, while there can perhaps be a tweak in emphasis to ensure that direct and powerful players are not removed from the system entirely.

They must also believe they are a match for the world's best and be prepared to dig in if needed.

For Iran and Australia, meanwhile, it is a case of continuing to build youth development structures that can help them exceed their current level. Both have shown that belief is no issue, but they are playing close to the maximum of their abilities.

Sheikh Salman and his team are right in saying "Asia must acknowledge its shortcomings, but at the same time we must believe in our own ability." However, that can only happen if the game as a whole improves.

Matters appear unlikely to change anytime soon, but that should not stop the many examples of progress being made. The sooner there is healthy competition within the continent the better for Asia's elite sides when they enter the world stage.


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