Nadir Belhadj (center) and Al Sadd defeated South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings to reach the AFC Champions League final.
JEONGJU, South Korea — When people around the world think of Asian soccer, they first think of its eastern edge. Understandably so as Japan and South Korea are now regulars in the knockout stage of World Cups, it is their teams that appear at club World Cups and their players are active in the huge leagues and seen in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League. Even the cynics who claim that any Asian signing by a European club is done for commercial reasons are picturing shirts flying off eastern rather than Arabian shelves.
The occasional big-money transfer and big-name coaching appointment apart, the western reaches do not receive the same attention. A good part of this is because in recent years, the region has slipped behind the standards set by those at the opposite end.
There is a chance to redress the balance a tiny in this weekend’s Asian Champions League final when Al Sadd of Qatar travels to South Korea to take on Jeonbuk Motors. The smart money, however, is on Jeonbuk to triumph and make it three in a row for Korea and six in succession for the east. Indeed it was the same green machine that ended the early western dominance of the club tournament when it defeated Al Karama of Syria in 2006. A year earlier when Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad defeated UAE’s Al Ain in the final, all seemed well. West Asian clubs reigned supreme, the Saudi national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup with ease, as did Iran and you had to go back to 1974 to find the region unrepresented on the global stage.
That record was ended in 2010 as there were no representatives in South Africa. And that was followed by a dreadful performance at the 2011 Asian Cup six months later. Held in Qatar, neither host nor neighbors made it past the last eight.
The question is why. There is no shortage of talent in countries such as UAE, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia but there is a problem with players moving to the top level. Afshin Ghotbi has stood on both sides of the fence. He was a member of the South Korean coaching staff at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, led Iranian giant Persepolis to the league title in 2008, took Iran to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup and is now in Japan, coaching J-League team Shimizu S-Pulse.
“The West has the individual talent and passion for the game but the East has a long-term strategic approach that has given them the edge,” stated Ghotbi. “The West must learn fast or the gap will only get bigger. The East has built a landscape for success. Japan and South Korea have professional leagues, have hosted the World Cup, and are exporting top talent to European leagues, and these are just a few examples. This long-term vision and its focus on development is in contrast to the focus on short-term results at both club and national team in the West.”
Ghotbi gets to the hub of the matter. The Gulf States do have the money — except for the suddenly wealthy and newly-crowned Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande, no team from East Asia can compete with the clubs from UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar when it comes to wages and transfer fees — what the east does do better, however, is develop players.
Japan has the ideal youth system in Asia with the country divided into 47 prefectures and Tokyo for the purposes of finding and training children. There are around 360,000 registered U-12 players in the country. Korea has an increasing number of soccer schools to compliment the traditional high school and university system.
Bob Houghton has coached in Saudi Arabia and China and when I discussed the subject with the Englishman, then coach of India, he provided an example of the difference in thinking between the opposite ends of the continent. “I can remember going to the Asian Games with China in 1998,” stated Houghton.”The Koreans and the Japanese decided, before it ever became a rule, that they would use the competition as development and they sent their Under 20 teams. They did not do great but the West Asians sent their full teams and Iran won. If you look now at what has happened to Korea and Japan and then look at what has happened to some of the others, then you can think that they had foresight.”
Too often, in the west, all attention is placed on the top level of the game. Highly-paid coaches are hired and then fired at the drop of a few points. Rich owners are more interested in famous managers, star players and instant results than investing in the unexciting and long-term game of helping grass-roots grow. Coaches are hardly likely to think about the long-term as they are under the constant threat of dismissal.
In the UAE for example, the coaching carousel has spun out of control. Despite the Pro League having just 12 teams, there were 13 dismissals last season. It is perhaps no coincidence that champion Al Jazira were led by the long-serving, at least relatively so at three years, Abel Braga.
Winfried Schaefer led Cameroon to the 2002 African Nations Cup and is currently impressing with Thailand. He was fired by Al Ain in 2009 with the club third in the league. Obviously, you would anticipate every coach you ask to reply that more time is always good but it is hard to disagree with the German’s arguments. “If you want to work with young, local players it is important to [work with them] for more than one season,” he said. “This would make UAE football stronger and it could help to support local talents more and more in the future, and in 10 or 15 years the very well-educated local players will become very good local coaches … But if you change the coach and hire someone with a totally different philosophy, you cannot work continuously in training up young players.”
If the players are not developed as much as they could be at home, very few move overseas either. Talk to any young Korean or Japanese professional and they are keen to move to Europe while their counterparts at the opposite end of Asia are less so — Iranians excepted. There is a distinct lack of representation in Europe to join Ali Al Habsi (Oman) at Wigan Athletic and a smattering of Syrians and Jordanians in the in the smaller leagues.
The ideal of the west prefer to stay home in their comfort zones. It is not just about the money. The salaries for homegrown players in the Gulf leagues are nothing extraordinary — though they are tax free — but they are feted and treated as stars by their fans and clubs.
The memory of speaking to a member of the Saudi Arabian coaching staff at the 2007 Asian Cup who looked over what was a talented squad and then remarked that the only thing they lacked was hunger.
Preferring to be a huge fish in a small pond may be understandable but that is just one of the things that need to change if West Asia is not to become a backwater.
John Duerden has been living in Asia for more than a decade and has been called “The voice of Asian football” by the BBC.
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