02 July 2014

After disastrous World Cup, how does Asian football turn things around?

Photo: AFC Facebook page
In what many are calling the most memorable FIFA World Cup in recent memory, the performances of Asian teams at Brazil 2014 were anything but.

Non-European regions achieved unprecedented success in Brazil. Five South American teams reached the knockout rounds of the tournament, while three North American and two African nations also advanced to the Round of 16.

It seems Asia lost its invitation to the party. The accumulated tally of the Asian sides was a miserable zero wins, three draws and nine defeats. Furthermore, some of the performances like Japan-Colombia, South Korea-Algeria and Australia-Spain were downright dreadful for nations that have plenty of World Cup pedigree.

There are always silver linings to be found like Iran’s display versus Argentina or Australia’s against the Netherlands, but that provides little consolation to fans of Asian football when the likes of Costa Rica are defeating Italy and Chile are running circles around Spain.

Like a good A.A. member, it is time for the Asian football family to admit it has problems – big problems. It can start by stop bandying around the “Future is Asia” and “We have four billion people” mantras. Asian football needs solutions not affirmations. It needs to think about the here and now and not just presume one-day things will workout. It has to realize that it does not matter that it has a massive youth population if those kids are picking up cricket bats and Ping-Pong rackets - or these days, video games and smartphones - over soccer balls.

Rest of Asia must improve
As many Asian football observers have mentioned in their postmortem of Asian teams at the 2014 World Cup, one of the biggest challenge for Asian football is the lack of continuous strong competition for its World Cup entrants.

As the gap between the Asian powers and their continental challengers remains wide, there is little pressure for the topsides to iron out the kinks. Teams such as Japan, Korea and Australia can and have repeatedly qualified for the World Cup despite having many flaws.

Frustratingly, Asia’s aspiring football nations fail to get inspired. Many of the second tier countries are so easily appeased by winning regional competitions such as the ASEAN Football Championship and Gulf Cup of Nations that catching-up to the big boys in not a serious priority for the local football authorities.

While there is much fine-tuning that the Asian heavyweights can do on their own, formidable opposition from the rest of Asia would definitely make a big impact.

AFC needs to be more demanding
Part of the problem in Asia is that fans and media are so absorbed in European and international football they forget about what is going on in their own backyard. Glancing through various social media sites it seems Ronaldo and Portugal’s exit from the World Cup hit Asian fans harder than the exit of all the Asian sides combined.

Due to the worship of foreign football, local clubs and football associations tend not receive the full wrath of the local public after poor performances, thus the football authorities do not feel the pressure to make swift reforms.

This is where the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) needs to come in and start demanding results by creating more benchmarks (such as minimum coach, referee and administrator numbers) for member association to meet and increasing club-licensing criteria that clubs must fulfill. The AFC already has a fairly good system of regulations in place, but it tends to use kid gloves and not brass knuckles when it comes to enforcement. With future World Cup berths on the line, the AFC has the perfect pretext to be more demanding with its member associations.

Embrace the private sector
Perhaps because they are keen to protect their fiefdom many Asian football associations have been very slow to embrace and maximize private sector support. This is unfortunate as this sector could do much of the heavy lifting for the local football associations like developing clubs, funding grassroots and youth programs and helping national teams.

There are plenty of companies and people with wealth that are looking to invest and get involved in Asian football, but poor management and sometimes even hostile attitudes by local football authorities have kept many of them away.

In my own neck of woods – Nepal, the strongest contribution to football has actually come from private individuals and not the national football association. They have built over two dozen indoor futsal halls which has seen a massive boom in kids playing football and provided an off-season venue for professional players to train in.

Private individuals have also played a key role in sending talented players abroad. National team members Rohit Chand, Jagjeet Shrestha and Bimal Gharti Magar have all secured contracts with big foreign clubs through the initiatives of private citizens that are passionate about football.

While the Nepal FA (ANFA) does not even have a properly updated website, a private site - GoalNepal.com, provides around the clock coverage of Nepali football. The site has over 200,000 Facebook ‘Likes’ and is perhaps one of the biggest catalysts for football development in the country.

All these activities are happening despite an antagonistic football association. Imagine the possibilities if they were supportive!

No single answer
Certainly, it is naïve to think there is one magic formula out there for football success. The historically dominant countries at the World Cup vary greatly in their approach to football development. North America and Africa have similar challenges to that of Asia but seem to have progressed better recently.

Ultimately, Asian football needs to quickly figure out what works best for it and start executing the plan at a torrid pace. As the former Iranian head coach Carlos Queiroz alluded to at his exit press conference after Iran’s run in the World Cup came to an end – the world is simply not going to wait for Asian football to get its act together.