Explaining what makes one country successful over another is incredibly difficult; just why are Brazil so much better than England, and what makes Spain more successful in recent years than the USA?
If the finance were the key factor, then Luxembourg and Norway would dominate. But if lack of finances motivated footballers to success, then the world’s stars would hale from Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
If population size determined success, then China and India would have five World Cups each. In actuality neither have impressed on the world stage. Uruguay, who have two World Cups and consistently compete, have a population over 300 times smaller than China’s.
Height doesn’t seem to be an issue either; some of the most successful footballing nations in the world have modest average heights on a world scale. And the tallest nation, the Netherlands, have never won a World Cup.
Although an Asian country has never won the World Cup, Korea Republic and Japan have both qualified for the last seven and four World Cups respectively, and have impressed—especially when the World Cup was hosted by Korea Republic and Japan in 2002.
In 2010, Japan were eliminated after a closely fought battle with Paraguay that ended 0-0 and went to penalties. Keisuke Honda was one of the surprise players of the tournament, someone who Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger—who had a brief career managing in Japan—called a “genius.” Korea Republic went to the 2010 World Cup on the back of an unbeaten qualifying campaign, but were put to the sword in the knockout round by the aforementioned impressive Uruguay.
So why are South Korea and Japan so much more successful than countries like China, Thailand and India?
According to Soccernomics, by Kuper and Szymanski, despite the stereotype that poorer people make better footballers, perhaps because they're more determined and work harder to leave the life they live, this isn't the case. It's usually poorer and less educated people, from rich countries, that make good footballers. This is true to a point, but it doesn’t include those who are poor on a global scale.
According to Kuper and Szymanski, those who are comfortable, in that they have food to eat, and a bed to sleep in, are more likely to make it. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo was so poor growing up, there was no space in his house for the washing machine, so they put it on the roof. But the fact that his family had a washing machine and roof to put it on proves they had at least some funds, and can’t be classed as poor on a global scale. If it were purely the poorest people who make the best professional footballers, then African countries would dominate—and so far this hasn’t been the case.
The other point made was that taller people tend to make it in sports, and so countries with more tall people to choose from have a better chance of competing, because the percentage of men they can choose to represent them is higher. People get tall by eating well, and they eat well by being economically comfortable, so the two are interlinked. Rich countries, with a population of tall people tend to be very successful footballing nations.
The Netherlands, for example, have a small nation of barely 16 million, a quarter that of Great Britain. But they are very tall, and according to the World Bank and the IMF they are the seventh and eighth richest country in the world respectively. Their success, the players they have given the world and the influence they have had on football with the invention of "total football" is completely out of sync with their population.
How does this relate to Korea Republic and Japan? Despite Japan having a smaller population than China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, their football history is infinitely more decorated. And incidentally, Japanese men are, on average, taller and wealthier than men in those countries. The Korean Republic has an even smaller population, whereas the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar all have larger populations. But again, Korean Republic men are wealthier and comfortably taller.
The other country qualifying from the Asian Football Confederation that has had some success in the World Cup is Australia. While they might be better at rugby and cricket, they are currently ranked a respectable 14th in the world, and like Korea Republic and Japan, dominate over other Asian countries in both wealth and height.
Obviously there are other factors like culture, and politics, but next time you watch a football match, maybe have a look at who has the taller and richer nation per capita before making your winning prediction.