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Rob Hughes
Tuesday, Jul 1, 2014

Sports

Mediocre Aisa in dire need of strong leaders

The Straits Times | Rob Hughes | Tuesday, Jul 1, 2014

South Korea's Son reacts after missing a chance to score against Algeria during their 2014 World Cup Group H football match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre.

This is the column that no-one, certainly not a European, is equipped to write. Why hasn't Asia, with 60 per cent of the global population, got a team in the second round of the World Cup?

Let me start by sharing with you the sense of loss and embarrassment. England are out too, sent packing by Costa Rica and Uruguay, whose combined populations do not approach the city of London.

But this is not about me, it is about you.

The website of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) this weekend has an editorial that starts: "The World Cup has been a joy. Unfortunately for the Asian confederation, the journey has come to an abrupt end."

The figures are stark. Japan, Iran, South Korea and Australia (not strictly Asian, but occupying one of the AFC's four berths anyway) played 12 games, drew three, lost nine and shipped 25 goals against nine scored.

There was a resilient 91 minutes by Iran against Argentina, until Lionel Messi popped up with one of his classic goals in added time.

Sad, really, because Iran, carrying out the organised resistance coached into them by the Portuguese Carlos Quieroz, had surrounded the best player on Earth with as many as four defenders for almost the entire contest.

Almost.

Sad, too, because Quieroz had persuaded Iran to break with its culture and allow foreign domiciled players to represent the country. Reza Ghoochenejhad, currently with English second-tier club Charlton Athletic, gave absolutely everything as the lone Iranian striker.

Personally, I have a problem with Europeans coaching Asians to go to a World Cup with such a negative frame of mind.

Australia at least gave it go, with Tim Cahill volleying perhaps the sweetest goal of this tournament so far against the Netherlands.

Sure, they lost, but the final score of 3-2 ran the Dutch mighty close, and at least left a mark on the World Cup.

That doesn't disguise the fact that all four AFC teams finished bottom of their groups. It doesn't bring any closer the usual mantra of Asian organisers that "Asia is a sleeping giant, and we have to unleash its potential."

No disrespect to Alex Soosay, the AFC general secretary, who by making that observation is merely repeating what his fellow Malaysian, Peter Velappan, had said in his 30 years in that office.

Velappan knows the game inside out. He knew that to help Asians to help themselves, there had to be better governance, better leadership, and an all-out war on complacency, on short-term thinking and on corruption.

I must repeat again my unease in making a biting observation, but will make it anyway: Asia in 2014 knows how to fix matches, but not to win one.

The excuses of body-type, climate, or lack of incentive no longer apply. No player in recent times has gone around the football pitch with more energy than Park Ji Sung.

Few countries have thrown more at organisation than Japan over the past 20 years, or South Korea when it shared the hosting of the 2002 World Cup, and reached the semi-finals on home soil.

But look at Brazil and Argentina. They are not giants in stature or in wealth, or even in club structure.

Their gift is bathed in the love of the game, in desire, and with the likes of Diego Maradona and Luis Suarez, we can also say in dark arts too.

That street cunning can only help win matches if it comes wrapped up in the skills that take a whole childhood and youth to master.

They are not necessarily helped or produced by expert coaching, because the creativity comes from the mind, the soul of individuals.

So please don't kid yourself that Asia is at a disadvantage in human potential. It takes 11 to make a team, Uruguay (population 3.4 million) have won the World Cup twice, the continent of Asia (population 4.3 BILLION) has no contenders.

I believe Asia looks to the wrong role models. David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are handsome Westerners, and know how to strip down to their underwear to really excite the young, not just in Asia.

But it is window dressing. Neither came close to winning a World Cup.

Pele, a simple soul from Santos, won three of them, the first when he was just 17. Messi needs to win this one for his own legend to be confirmed, but he might not because one player doesn't make a team.

History tells him that it can be done.

South Americans and Europeans are the only two continents that have produced World Cup-winning sides - and you are not alone in forever wondering if and when you reach the pinnacle.

For decades, Africa failed to live up to claims that it would be a force in football. Yet look at winning European club sides and you will find powerful African talents. And maybe some Asian hopefuls.

There has been talk since March 2010 of Park Sheng Ho being the "New Messi".

Time will tell, but Park, now 17, has been at Barcelona's academy for four years, and still finds it difficult to settle.

South Korea, however, peaked in 2002 because of one man. It wasn't Guus Hiddink, though the Dutch coach showed them how to compete. It wasn't any player, though Hong Myung Bo was a great captain.

It was the commitment, money, and dynamism of Chung Mong Joon. A member of the Hyundai family, he was at that time a Fifa vice-president and provided the means for Hiddink to train players in a secluded camp for months on end.

Chung hoped to lead Asia's confederation. He was ousted by Mohammed Hammam, the Qatari who wanted to rule football's world. Hammam removed Chung, and also Velappan, before corruption got rid of the Qatari.

With so much leadership stripped out of Asia - is it any wonder the continent founders?

stsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
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