Does Asia really belong in the World Cup?
That question unfortunately has to be asked after a lackluster first go-around in the 2014 tournament. In a World Cup that has featured unusually offensive soccer, with scoring at nearly three goals per game, the four Asian squads have not kept up.
With every team having played at least one match so far, Asia is the only continent/confederation to have not won a game. Its four teams have managed just five goals in five games, with Iran involved in the only scoreless draw in the openers of all 32 teams.
That should probably not come as a surprise as the four Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams arrived in Brazil as the weakest group, at least according to the FIFA World Ranking. It has four of the six lowest-ranked teams, including Australia right at the bottom at No. 62, and is the only confederation without a team ranked in the top 40.
And it is not as if the Asian teams have gone up against the titans of the sport in every match. Australia played gallantly but was beaten by both Chile and the Netherlands. Japan blew an early lead and lost to Ivory Coast. Both Iran and South Korea played to uninspiring draws, with the Koreans fortunate to score their lone goal on a colossal blunder by the Russian keeper.
This trend is nothing new, however. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, with Asia guaranteed at least four entries, only one squad has made it past the quarterfinals in four tournaments. A number of AFC teams have been on the wrong end of ghastly blowouts, such as Germany’s 8-0 wipeout of Saudi Arabia in 2002 and North Korea’s 7-0 thumping by Portugal in 2010.
Even Asia’s lone success story in that span has to be considered an aberration. South Korea made it to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, finishing fourth after losing to Turkey in the third-place game. But the Koreans co-hosted that World Cup with Japan and played every match on home soil. Their successive wins over Portugal, Italy and Spain were all tainted by officiating decisions that allowed the home side to sail through.
To find a truly remarkable performance in a World Cup by an Asian team, you have to go all the way back to 1966, when North Korea advanced to the quarterfinals of the 16-team tournament after a 1-0 stunner over Italy. The Koreans then actually led 3-0 in that quarterfinal match against Portugal before losing 5-3.
Over the past 20 years, when the rest of the world seemingly were catching up to the European and South American powers, Asia has been largely left behind. While African sides and even the United States have ascended the FIFA World Ranking, AFC teams are basically running in place.
There are a couple of key reasons for this:
1. Tactical deficiency: While the rest of the world has moved on to a more aggressive, possession-oriented attacking style, Asian teams have not adapted. They simply lack the creativity and flair that are integral to a more offensive approach.
Most Asian teams are stuck with stale tactical approaches whether their coaches are home grown or imported. And that goes for their respective domestic leagues as well.
2. Limited talent base: There’s no question that most of the world’s teams are poaching for talent wherever they can find them. The U.S. squad counts six dual-citizens on its roster; European teams – France, Germany, Belgium, and even Switzerland – draw from their large immigrant communities for top players; African teams find expats who were born or lived in Europe to represent them in international competition.
That talent pool simply doesn’t exist for Asian teams as most countries have homogeneous populations. Their expats also don’t tend to play soccer – or any sport for that matter.
3. Soccer just isn’t a priority: Unlike in most parts of the world, soccer is not the most popular sport in many Asian countries. That’s even the case for three of the four AFC representatives as baseball is by far the most popular sport in both Japan and Korea, while in Australia, soccer is a distant third to rugby and Australian rules football.
And in the two most populous Asian countries, soccer is merely a blip. China has made a token appearance in the World Cup, preferring basketball and other Olympic sports. In India, cricket is about the only sport that matters.
These are serious impediments for Asian nations to become superpowers at the World Cup. So don’t expect Asian teams to do much in this tournament, and in the near or even distant future. For some time come, Asia will remain the sick man of soccer.