January 2, 2015 – 1:21PM
Senior sports reporter with The Age
It’s called the Asian Cup, and it kicks off on January 9 when Australia hosts Kuwait at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
But a cursory glance at the list of qualifiers raises the question: should it be called the Middle Eastern Cup, or the Gulf Cup part two?
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine all hail from what, in FIFA-speak, is known as West Asia.
The rest of us, not forced into tongue-tied definitions because of the dictates of football realpolitik, call it the Middle East.
The only qualifier from their part of the world in Central Asia is Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic.
Host nation Australia are in the Asian region geographically and for reasons of football politics, but most of their Confederation neighbours would struggle to see Australia as a genuinely Asian country.
That leaves four qualifiers who, in the definition of most secondary-age schoolchildren, would be termed Asian: Japan, South and North Korea, and China.
So what, you might say: what’s the problem?
Surely all of these Middle Eastern nations qualified through an open system of group games and are simply better than the East Asian opponents who faced them in those qualifying competitions?
And it’s not as if the repetition is unknown. What about Europe? All countries from that continent are lumped together for qualifying matches, and if Eastern European nations no longer make it with the frequency they once did that’s because they are not good enough.
But I think there are significant differences between the two cases.
While the economies of many eastern European nations are shaky and the money is no longer there to spend on coaching and development that there was when totalitarian governments invested in sport as a means of propaganda, at least they have a strongly defined football culture.
They may, at some point in the near future, begin a football renaissance through the talent that might emerge despite the lack of resources.
In many countries of South-East Asia there is not just a lack of cash to develop a football infrastructure but there is simply not a deep-rooted football culture.
The likelihood of Sri Lanka, Guam, Thailand, Malaysia or even wealthy Hong Kong seriously threatening their powerful Middle Eastern rivals, who have money, emerging leagues and a football culture that has developed rapidly in the past four decades, is slim.
So what, you might say. That’s the way of the world.
But does it have to be? After all, it does all get quite samey.
The 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar boasted 14 of the 16 nations who have qualified this time. The differences are Oman and Palestine, who made it to Australia, in place of Syria and India from 2011.
In 2007 there was a fair bit of variation as the tournament was staged across four countries, so Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia all qualified as hosts. Even so, of the remaining 12 qualifiers, seven came from the Middle East.
Of course, there always will be powerful nations who qualify almost as a matter of course all over the world. Mexico have dominated in Concacaf World Cup qualifying for decades, with only the US recently challenging.
The European giants of Italy and Germany invariably make it to World Cups and Euro championships whatever else is happening in football on the continent, while Brazil have not missed a World Cup from South America.
But in Asia there does seem to be an even larger monopoly. Occasionally ideas are floated about a total revamp of a 47-member group which stretches from Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, includes India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, takes in Brunei, Laos and Timor-Leste as well as the East Asian giants Japan and South Korea, finishing as far south as Australia.
Usually they founder for political reasons, and it’s not likely that the Asian Football Confederation will vote itself out of existence. Turkeys don’t put their wings up for Christmas, despite what the evidence of recent days might suggest. Still, it’s worth asking once more whether it is time for FIFA to look seriously at splitting up the AFC and in the same breath fix up the anomaly that is Oceania.
Why not fold Oceania into this huge block, and then split it in two so we have a genuine West and Central Asian Confederation and an East Asian and Oceania Confederation?
Logistically it would make a lot of sense, cutting down on travel time and making it easier for teams to play qualifiers away from home in more time-friendly zones without having to deal with the worst effects of jet lag.
Why not hive off what is now West Asia – Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the UAE and Yemen – and parcel it up with the Central Asian Football Federation and the South Asian Football Federation to make an entirely new body.
The 12 Middle Eastern countries could be joined by Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan from Central Asia, plus Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Maldives, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. That would be 25 nations in all.
They could then create a totally separate confederation – East Asia and Oceania – by folding all the countries in the East Asian and ASEAN football federations in with the 11 members of the Oceania group.
That would contain 33 members, many of them very small, so there would need to be a qualification mechanism by which the smallest countries played each other to eliminate the weakest before going into the main draw for qualifying games for major tournaments.
Unwieldy? Difficult? Of course. And the big teams would still likely dominate, at least at first.
But it would make more geographical sense, and it would give the chance to some of the smaller developing East Asian nations to at least make inroads in a confederation which would not prove so daunting.
Such a scenario would allow FIFA to get rid of Oceania, with its half a qualifying spot for the World Cup, and at the same time expand the chances for teams from both new confederations to make a splash on the global stage by giving both three qualifying places to the World Cup.
That would, of course, mean taking one and a half spots from other regions: but if the game’s rulers are serious about growing football in underdeveloped regions there is nothing better than the carrot of a World Cup place to encourage investment and participation. Nations like Indonesia, in particular, with huge populations and an emerging economy, might be a particularly fertile ground in which to plant the seed.
The Europeans would rail against such a suggestion, but the game has reached saturation point there while the real upsides are in this part of the world.
It might mean the end of the Asian Cup as we know it, but we could get two bites at the cherry instead by having two new continental confederation championships – the East Asian Cup and the West Asian tournament.
Why not give it some serious thought?
Source : The Canberra Times