The 2014 World Cup provided sports fans with plenty of surprises. From the downfall of soccer superpowers – Spain and host country Brazil – to the strong performance of smaller nations like Costa Rica and Belgium, this tournament has destroyed everyone’s expectations – even master prognosticator Nate Silver’s.
Also surprising to some: the lackluster performance overall of the entrants from the East Asia, Central Asia, or Asia-Pacific into the World Cup – Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia.
“It is quite amazing how badly all of the teams did,” said Tom Byer, a former American soccer player now heralded as one of the premier grassroots soccer coaches in Asia.
None of the four national teams made it past the first stage of group play to the Round of 16. The only points any of the teams earned in this initial round came from draws. And all combined, the four teams scored a total of just nine goals. By comparison, the Netherlands alone scored 10 goals in group play.
It wasn’t all bad news for the representatives of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Australia faced one of the many so-called “Groups of Death,” competing with the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. And Iran managed a draw against a remarkably strong Nigerian squad. But fans of the Asian squads were still left feeling frustrated.
“In the case of Japan and South Korea, there are very few positives that we can take from the tournament,” said Angus MacLeod, founder of Japanfooty.com, an English-language site on Japanese soccer. “Both were a huge let-down, particularly Japan.”
What makes the East Asian squads’ performances all the more disappointing is how drastically they differed from the 2010 South Africa World Cup. There, both Japan and South Korea made it to the Round of 16 and played admirably until the end – with South Korea scoring a goal against eventual semi-finalist Uruguay and Japan losing in penalty kicks to Paraguay.
“It is quite amazing how badly all of the teams did."
Moving beyond this World Cup, the future of Asian soccer seems unclear, given the momentum the AFC seemed to be building in the past 20 years. In 1994, Saudi Arabia stormed onto the scene, making it to the Group of 16 in its first World Cup appearance.
Since then, an Asian team has made it to the Group of 16 in three of the last five World Cups prior to this year’s competition. In 2002, Japan and South Korea hosted the beautiful game’s biggest tournament. On home turf, South Korea made it to the semifinals, the best performance ever by an Asian team. But Asia’s once-unique strategy has begun to bite the hand that fed it.
“When Japan and South Korea burst onto the international stage a decade plus ago, they brought a new style of football with quick passing and movement that surprised the traditional powers,” said Rowan Simons, a senior vice president at Guinness World Records and Chinese soccer expert. “Opponents have worked out how to play against them, while their own styles have failed to evolve.”
So what will it take for Asian teams to join their South American and European counterparts in soccer glory? Unfortunately, there’s not one clear-cut answer.
“It’s fantastically hard to generalize about Asia,” said David Goldblatt, author of “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer.” In Goldblatt’s view, it’s better to break down Asia into its separate regions when attempting to assess the issues national squads have at excelling in the sport. For instance, while East Asia and the Middle East both have strong teams, South and Southeast Asia lag behind.
Nevertheless, when talking with soccer expert, a few solutions do emerge. For Asian teams to improve, competition must improve in AFC tournaments and within domestic leagues.
“Historically Asia’s greatest disadvantages lay in not having a competitive league or development system,” said Howard Hamilton, founder and CEO of Soccermetrics Research, a company that promotes the use of data analysis in football.
Aside from Australia and Japan, other nation's domestic soccer leagues have often fallen victim to corruption and money problems. They also face serious competition due to the popularity of other sports, such as cricket in India and basketball in China.
Additionally, many of the countries lack the infrastructure needed to develop soccer, which, as Goldblatt puts it, is at its heart an urban sport. In China, for instance, soccer pitches are hard to find and expensive to rent, which dissuades investment in the sport.
“Potential players don't have the means,” said Gary O’Toole, a writer for World Soccer Talk and Chinese soccer enthusiast. “Even if there is a chance to practice and hone their technique, the lack of available pitches or fields is astonishingly low, even in major cities like Shanghai.”
But ultimately what Asia’s lack of success comes down to is the fact that most countries have yet to grow a strong football culture. As a result, children are introduced to the sport later in life than their peers in soccer-obsessed countries like Brazil or England. And while familiarity with soccer doesn’t necessarily make you the next Neymar or James Rodriguez, Byer said it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In his work as a technical coach across Asia, Byer has demonstrated and reinforced the importance placed in youth development. In Latin America, he said, it’s not uncommon to find kids kicking a soccer ball around in the streets for fun. That appreciation for the sport in children helps build stronger players.
“How do you get a kid to fall in love with a ball?” Byer said. “Unless you get them to fall in love you’re going to have a very difficult time together them to go out and practice.”
Byer suggests those predicting Asia’s future to study the results of 2015’s FIFA U-17 World Cup, the international soccer tournament for players under the age of 17. That should be a prime opportunity to meet the players who will be in their prime for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"The hunger and the fascination for football that’s emerging in Asia is only going to grow.”
So who will be playing in 2018 and how will they do? Despite its poor showing in Brazil, Japan is likely to stick it out according to most soccer analysts, and South Korea will probably join. That leaves only two spots open – one of which may very well go again to the Australian team.
From there, it gets murkier. Teams from Western Asia have a good shot – recently, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Iran have fielded strong teams. With Qatar still on board to host the 2022 World Cup, Middle Eastern squads will look to capitalize on the desert environs. There’s also a chance you’ll find a lone Central Asian contingent in Uzbekistan, who many say could pose a threat in familiar Russian territory.
While it’s far too soon to say where Asian soccer will stand in 2018, one thing that’s certain is the sport will only continue to grow on the world’s largest and most populous continent.
“I bet the television audience is bigger in Asia next time than it was this time,” Goldblatt said. “Whatever happens on the field, the hunger and the fascination for football that’s emerging in Asia is only going to grow.”