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Aug 6, 2012

The age of Asia is arriving

A Japan v South Korea final at the Olympics? The continent's two biggest rivals fighting it out for the gold medal in London would be a dream. Just to have the Samurai Blue and the Taeguk Warriors in the semi-finals signifies something of a seismic shift in the world of football regardless of any European excuses about teams not taking it seriously. For Japan to beat Mexico and Korea to overcome Brazil is a big ask but it is not out of the question, not any more. These two eastern nations are no longer mere continental powerhouses; they are international teams to be reckoned with.

To make judgements after a game or two can be hasty but this has been coming. Could this be the week when Asia officially overtakes Africa in the unofficial world standings and becomes recognised for what it has become - at the top level at least? Africa took gold at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics forcing South America and Europe to shift along and make space at the top table. Now Asia is pulling up a chair but it is not about to put its feet up and relax.

The continent may allow itself a few self-satisfied minutes to reflect however. All remember the lean years. In the last decade of the last century when Africa was thrilling the world of football with gold medals, flair-filled appearances in the knockout stages of World Cups and skilled stars in the big leagues, Asia was having little international impact. There were no Asian George Weahs or Jay Jay Okochas thrilling fans around the world. The African Nations Cup was becoming a semi-global event in the way that the Asian Cup was not (and still is not, something that will change before too long).

But Asia is overtaking Africa in global terms. It is not about Africa growing weaker or going backwards, it is a purely positive story about the best Asian nations getting stronger. If truth be told, it is not a romantic tale of success against the odds that has sprung from the streets, dusty fields or war-torn cities. Japan and South Korea have marvellous facilities that cost considerable amounts of money, as do China, and their medal count at the Olympics show that these are not sporting minnows. It was always a matter of time before they started to flex their muscles on the football pitch.

The question is no longer whether Asian football is rising but why it took so long and how far can it go? The answers are connected. Professionalism is still relatively young. The K-League is the oldest professional league on the continent but doesn't turn 30 until next year. The J-League will become 20 at the same time. Some Gulf leagues are mere toddlers compared to the young adults out in East Asia but are growing quickly.

Leagues K and J have matured with the J-league making rapid progress and setting the standard for the rest of Asia off the pitch. As a full package, the league is in the top ten in the world. The K-League is currently undergoing a serious reconstruction that, it is hoped, will help the league close the gap between standards on the pitch and off it. Such leagues were set up, to some extent at least, to help the countries perform internationally and it is no coincidence this is starting to happen.

The increasing number of young players they are sending to Europe is an issue that needs close attention - as a number of African leagues, severely weakened by the exodus of talented young players to the north, would warn. There is some debate over the optimal age and destination for these eastern exports but their leagues have matured to the extent that young players leaving give opportunities for younger players to get vital playing experience, and this is key, at a level that is internationally competitive.

Both nations continue to produce talent and Japan's youth development is extensive, comprehensive, efficient and increasingly productive. It is a model that is catching on elsewhere - albeit slowly and sporadically. UAE and Qatar leagues are becoming more professional by the day and even China is slowly looking to Japan as it gets to grips with the fact that players as good as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka are going to do little to help the country to produce talented players consistently.

Good players and coaches coming to the region, talented youngsters increasingly testing themselves in Europe, more and more young talent coming through, excellent facilities, improving infrastructure and better coaches - the top nations of Asia are just getting started. There is still much to do though. The gap between the best leagues and the worst is as massive as the continent itself. In too many countries politics is too close to the beautiful game while there are still federations and sponsors who prefer to go ga-ga over glamour and big names while neglecting the grassroots.

At the top end though, these are issues that either have been solved or are in the process of doing so. Japan and South Korea are still the bearing the standard they picked up in the last century. The pair reached the knockout stages in 2002 - a feat that was internationally at least, largely put down to home advantage. They did the same in South Africa. And now they are doing it again at the 2012 Olympics.

These two nations, who have achieved a level of consistency in the continental and the international game that their Asian rivals need to match, deserve the chance to meet in the final in London. It would be a fitting curtain-raiser for the show to come. Korea and Japan have shown the way and it is open for others to follow. The age of Asia is not yet upon us, but it is getting closer.

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