Thursday, September 16, 2010
Patience and planning key to West Asian progress
To be in Jakarta on July 29, 2007 was to witness the football story of the year as Iraq won the Asian Cup after defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0. The 60,000 or so locals were firmly on the side of the victors from the beginning, buying cheap Iraq football shirts along with the even cheaper Nasi Goreng - an Indonesian fried rice dish - on sale from the mobile trucks. It wasn't just a football story, it made headlines around the world as the war-torn nation conquered the continent.
What was lost among the raft of articles was the fact that it was also a triumph for West Asian football, with two teams from the region contesting the final. Not much has gone right since in that part of the continent. None of its national teams managed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, few of its players can be seen overseas and none of its clubs have won the Asian Champions League for the past four years.
The next four months are crucial. The UAE is hosting the FIFA Club World Cup in December while the Asian Cup comes to Qatar the following month. A representative (not counting the obligatory team from the host nation) at the former and the winner at the latter would snatch back some of the power that shifted across to the eastern reaches of the continent over the second half of the previous decade.
The road to Abu Dhabi passes through Tokyo, the venue of November's AFC Champions League final, and to get there one of the Saudi Arabian pair of Al Hilal and Al Shabab, Al Gharafa of Qatar or Iranian league leaders Zob Ahan need to stop a quartet of South Korean sides. The first legs went well but there is still work to do if a club from the region is to lift the fairly unattractive-looking trophy for the first time since 2005. Back then, defending champions Al Ittihad demolished K-League and Chinese opposition on the way to defeating UAE's Al Ain, winner of the 2003 tournament, in the final. After back-to-back wins, it looked as if the Saudi giants were about to establish a continental dynasty. That didn't happen and the prize has since become a possession of Japan and South Korea.
Those two nations flew the flag for Asia in South Africa and reached the second-round, defeating European and African teams along the way and earning respect around the world. The likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia who, when the region's clubs were dominating the continent back in 2005, were breezing through qualification for the 2006 World Cup, had to watch on television. Even Bahrain, the last hope, fell to New Zealand in the Asia-Oceania play-off. East Asia has now sent representatives to the knockout stages on five occasions but you have to go back to 1994 to find the only example of a western team surviving the first-round, though Saeed Owairan's slalom through the Belgian defence for Saudi Arabia is always worth a revisit. More worryingly, the first African World Cup was also the first non-West Asian World Cup since 1974.
Park Ji-Sung and Keisuke Honda led the charge into the last 16 but were merely adding to reputations already established in Europe. Park has smiled back at his reflection in the Premier League trophy three times and appeared in the biggest club match in the world for Manchester United. Honda's performances in South Africa merely confirmed his new-found star status earned in the Netherlands and then in the Champions League with CKSA Moscow. Iranians aside - though even Team Melli's best are not as common in the big leagues as they used to be with Osasuna pair Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei the exception - West Asians rarely travel overseas.
Domestic salaries that are lucrative and tax-free forge ties that are hard to break as does star status in their homelands. At the 2007 Asian Cup, a Saudi Arabian team official looked at the Green Falcons in training and complained to me about a lack of desire in the players to leave their comfort zones. One of the best, Yasser Al-Qahtani has the talent to play in the west and even had a trial at Manchester City in 2008. Arriving with an entourage who reportedly cheered his every touch, The Sniper soon found himself in the crosshairs of Richard Dunne and the defender's resultant robust reducer didn't go down well. The Al Hilal star did, "like a bag of chips" according to ex-City goalkeeper John Burridge, and then quickly burst into tears. Al-Qahtani, swiftly returning to the ranks of Al Hilal, should have taken a leaf out of Ali Al-Habsi's book. The giant Omani goalkeeper spent the best part of four years on the bench at Bolton Wanderers, a period that was far too long for such a talent. While his move to Wigan to serve as Chris Kirkland's understudy in the summer was underwhelming, he has now broken into the first team to provide a very rare example of an Asian goalkeeper succeeding in Europe.
It is not always the fault of the players; the clubs can make it difficult too. In 2008, highly-rated UAE striker Faisal Khalil (who in 2008 was arrested for allegedly hiring Omani sorcerers to perform spells against other players so he could get back in the national team) left Al Ahli for French club Chateauroux - or so he thought. The Dubai outfit were angry that he had decided to move to another club and blocked his documentation, meaning he could not play in France.
Eventually the royal family - namely crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad Al Maktoum who was the president of the club - stepped in and Khalil returned home to play for Al Ahli.
The lack of players overseas hurts the region. Big names such as Fabio Cannavaro may be tempted to UAE, for example, but the professional league there is still in its infancy. Standards are not yet high and attendances remain low - a mere 400 fans watched an international friendly between UAE and Kuwait last week. The domestic game in Iran is still as chaotically run by the Iranian Football Federation/Iranian government as ever and while the Saudi Arabian league is the best-established, it lags behind the eastern competitions in terms of infrastructure, especially lower down the football pyramid. The fact that too many clubs are trigger-happy in the Wild West doesn't help long-term planning - the arrival of David O'Leary at Al Ahli marks the sixth coaching change at the club in not much more than a year - and even if they are not fired, the best coaches tend not to hang around. The imminent departure of Eric Gerets from Al Hilal is a loss for more than just the Saudi club.
Patience is what is needed - patience to focus on youth more and results less, patience to allow players to develop and try their luck overseas if necessary, patience for clubs to develop greater ties with their local communities, patience to allow the coaches to do their jobs free from interference and not fire them after a couple of bad results.
The national teams may be leading the way. Saudi Arabia spent a little time licking their wounds in June 2009 after failing to qualify for the World Cup but for once, the Saudi scimitar of Damocles didn't fall on the man sweating on one of the hottest seats in Asia and Jose Peseiro kept his job. Iran kept hold of Afshin Ghotbi while Bruno Metsu is still with Qatar. All of these coaches have been planning for the Asian Cup for over a year already while of the four World Cup teams only North Korea have the same hands at the helm. There is little time for the new men in Australia, Japan and South Korea to get much done before the start of the Qatari tournament.
Superior preparation and long-term planning may give the region the edge at the Asian Cup in January and if that puts some West Asian stars in the international shop window and encourages more investment and focus on the grassroots of the game then that really would be a story. Not one, perhaps, to rival Iraq's championship success but a worthy football story nonetheless.