MOSCOW Russia (Xinhua) --
The composition of the last 16 of the 2018 World
Cup finals shows that Europe and South America continue to be
the powerhouses of world football with Asia and Africa still
struggling to make the big statement they have threatened to
make for a while.
There are 10
European teams in the knockout stage of the tournament along
with five from South and Central America. Japan is the sole
Asian representative and no team from Africa has made it into
the knockout phase of the tournament. On the face of it, it
looks as if Russia 2018 has seen Asian and African football take
a step backwards rather than forwards, but maybe that isn’t the
(who qualified through Asia), Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea
all took the first plane home, none of the teams disgraced
themselves. The Aussies were in with a chance of qualifying in
their final group match; Iran showed they are incredibly tough
to beat and were just a goal away from reaching the last 16,
while South Korea produced the shock result of the tournament
when they beat defending champions Germany.
Even Saudi Arabia
won a game, recovering from their 5-0 thrashing by Russia, when
they looked like rabbits caught in the headlights at the
Luzhniki Stadium. They improved vastly against Uruguay and ended
their campaign with a 2-1 win over Egypt. The Saudis did at
times appear naive and that could give a hint as to why Japan
are continually the most competitive of all the Asian sides at
the World Cup.
The starting 11
coach Akira Nishino fielded in their last group game on Thursday
had just two players (Tomoaki Makino and Hotaru Yamaguchi) who
play their club football in Japan, the rest play in Europe with
two in the Premier League, two in France, three in Germany and
one each in Spain and Turkey.
virtually all the Saudis play in their own domestic league with
the three squad members (Salen Aldawsari, Fahad Almuwallad and
Yahya Alshehri) who were loaned to Spanish clubs seeing just a
handful of minutes of competitive football.
When asked about
that policy ahead of their game against Uruguay, Saudi coach
Juan Antonio Pizzi said the experience had been positive. “We
think it is a good route for the Saudi league [to] have taken to
promote the experience of Saudi players and I hope they continue
doing so, because I think it will be reflected in the
performance of the players and the national team,” he commented.
That points to a
‘chicken and egg’ scenario: in order to get the tactical
experience to play at the highest level, you need to play at the
highest level, but it’s difficult to play at the top level
without the experience. It’s obvious that Asian nations are
working on gaining that experience with ever-increasing numbers
of European coaches at Asian clubs and academies.
Top players are
playing in Japan and China (with Fernando Torres looking likely
to join Andres Iniesta in the J-League), but clubs have to be
careful not to merely sign a ‘star player’: what is needed are
players who will not only play, but who can teach, who are able
to leave a legacy of improved local players when they are gone.
There is no reason
why a European, African or South American footballer should be
more talented than an Asian one; and they aren’t, what is needed
for Asian football to continue to grow is for the players to do
as they do in other aspects of the game. Areas like technical
analysis and sports nutrition spring to mind.
That is slowly but
surely happening as we have seen with Japan and to a lesser
extent South Korea. With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and eight
Asian sides to compete in 2026, Asian football has the chance to
continue progressing on the world stage.