SAO PAULO ― The group stage matches have wrapped up here in Brazil, and the 32 World Cup teams have had their shot to prove what they’re worth. While this is the stage when the real fun gets underway, one region in particular leaves with their heads hung low as the entire Asian representation ― Iran, Australia, Japan and South Korea ― was eliminated.
South Korea’s defeat to Belgium on Thursday sealed the winless fate of the Asian Football Confederation teams, the first such performance since 1990. This is the worst outing for Korea since 1998, another year when no Asian country reached the second round.
Korea’s weaknesses were not isolated, with the devastating results even prompting Iran and Japan’s foreign-born coaches Carlos Queiroz and Alberto Zaccheroni to resign following their final defeats. All four coaches lamented their teams’ insufficient physicality against world-class squads, as showcased in Iran’s tired loss to Bosnia after a grueling 1-0 fight with Argentina.
“We had squeezed everything out of our players against Argentina,” said Queiroz after his team’s final defeat on Wednesday. “Like squeezing an orange dry. They had little more left to give.”
AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said this should serve as a wake-up call for Asia to “acknowledge its shortcomings” and bring its game to the next level, with hopes that renewed commitments to enhancing infrastructure, commercial, competition and administration would show its effects by the next World Cup.
Korean coach Hong Myung-bo suggested that Asia was in a “transition period” where individual players were improving but that catching up with the best teams was difficult.
But Queiroz, criticizing their competition system, training and organization, said Asian teams would never win in their game of catch-up with Europe because the competitors would always be one step ahead.
“Asian teams year after year keep making the same mistakes, so they’ll never be able to be on the same level as Europe or South America,” he said. “You cannot copy Europe because the day you think you are close, they are one step ahead because they also progress. But the officials persist in copying Europe and year after year the gap is higher and higher.”
The inability of Asia’s best teams to put up a better fight in Brazil signals that there is still much work to be done, and a change in approach seems imminent. Australia and Iran proved to be threatening in their cutthroat groups, but teams need more than the luck of the draw in such international tournaments to move forward. The reasons behind Asia’s football woes are vast and complex, but I believe AFC countries, especially Korea, Japan, China and Iran, yearn for better. The uphill battle is steep, but not impossible. Taking on coaches like Queiroz, Zaccheroni and Marcello Lippi (China’s AFC Champions League-winning Guangzhou) have been solid recent efforts to right the ship. Though Hong is well respected as one of the best players in its football history, the country might do well to seek out another Guus Hiddink, but one committed to leaving a lasting influence, in an earnest effort to improve the football culture. But taking on a pricey international coach is not enough.
Asia must do more than merely sending its talent abroad to bring back what they learned from top-flight European leagues. At the club level, the Asian football organizations must continue to globalize and make their environments more inviting to foreign players. Stripping or easing the foreign player cap in Korea and elsewhere would be another positive move, not just for the good of the sport but also for the good of the ever-so-slowly opening region.
In Korea, grade-obsessed public schools must turn around their dismal physical education system to encourage sport on top of study, and parents must become more open to their children pursuing their own dreams and taking careers that aren’t just for the country’s most famous corporations.
Football associations should look to the long term to invest more in youth development programs. Above all, I believe, the emerging generation of footballers must continue to inspire the youth to follow their lead. Then, perhaps, Korea and countries like it can one day find themselves in grasp of the world’s best. It may be a long, long time until an AFC team faces Brazil or any other top-class team in a World Cup final. But with the right strategic investments and long-term commitment to improving the conference and the quality of football in each nation, Asia should not lose hope.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent