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Feb 17, 2013

Asia's inferiority complex

Jose Antonio Camacho, the former coach of Spain and Real Madrid, is paid around €2.8 million a year to manage the Chinese national team. That's 25 times more than his predecessor, Gao Hongbo. But it is hard to argue that he has done a better job than the Chinese tactician and after another disappointing defeat, this time in the opening game of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup, there are rumours that Gao could replace his replacement. In Asia, the idea that a foreign coach is usually better is common but, for the bigger powers at least, it's time to place more trust in homegrown talent.

Africa does and as a result it has seen its own sons deliver four of the past five African Nations Cups. But the last seven Asian Cups have all been masterminded by outsiders, all the way back to 1984. And with most of Asia's best teams still under foreign control - just two of ten in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup have homegrown coaches - it would not be a surprise to see that drought continue for a few more years yet. Foreign coaches may deliver more success, but they get more opportunities to do so.

Of the continent's big three, only South Korea have domestic help - Japan and Australia have taken a more cosmopolitan approach. Some feel that with these countries having more and more players based overseas, they need a national team coach with international experience and so, with few Asian coaches having it, there is little choice. Others argue that, with players basically working with international coaches for 90% of the season, when they come home, it is better to have a local lad picking the team.

A foreign coach does have certain advantages. Guus Hiddink was necessary at the turn of the century for a team ready to start challenging on the world stage. The Dutchman's 18 months in South Korea were a classic example of how an outsider could do what those inside could not, and not just in terms of ability and experience but culturally, too. Hiddink knew little about the expected way of doing things in Seoul and cared less. His focus was the team and results, and he provided a confidence that had been lacking.

There's politics too. If you are Iranian, you just don't get the big job without some connections. In 2008, Ali Daei had the backing of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who then approved of his sacking in 2009. Operating in this minefield is a distraction at best. For foreigners, ignorance can be bliss.

And there's the media. Outsiders can operate at arm's length from the press, with the language barrier being used as a comfortable cushion. Local scribes tend to have mixed feelings about an import. There is the interest and excitement of a new face but access is usually more difficult. In certain parts of Asia, journalists also appreciate the fact that it is much easier to criticise a foreign coach than a well-known and connected local figure. Not that this usually bothers the visitor. It is easy not to read the newspapers when you actually can't read the newspapers.

But then if the outsider can operate in relative freedom when it comes to the media, politics or culture, and has the chance to really make a difference, he rarely does. History is replete with airport arrival hall pronouncements that promise revolutions from top to bottom. Almost always, though, focus swiftly turns on the next World Cup qualifier. Holger Osieck arrived in Australia with a reputation for helping German youth yet has done more to prolong the careers of the ageing Aussie veterans than many would like.

The local vs foreign debate can be heard almost every time there is a vacancy and the volume grows the lower down the FIFA rankings you go. It is in the less developed football nations that an outsider can have a significant effect, providing much-needed international experience to players and other coaches that otherwise have little. It comes at a price, however. Not only is Camacho 25 times more expensive than his local predecessor, his entourage adds another €1.7 million to the wage bill. Throw in accommodation, transport and translating costs (though the China FA struggled to find a Spanish-Chinese interpreter who knew anything of football) and you are talking about quite a package. China can afford it. Many others can't.

For these, there is always the 'Lebanon solution'. Take an international coach who already lives and works in the country and then you have an interesting compromise. Theo Bucker is a well-known ex-Bundesliga player, married to a Lebanese woman with extensive experience of the Beirut football scene. He has also taken the country to the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

But Asia's big boys should give more consideration to local talent. These nations have, or should have, passed the stage when it is automatic to look overseas. There have been some encouraging signs. Uzbekistan keep things in-house and are steadily improving, with a first World Cup appearance in sight. United Arab Emirates are becoming a power in the region under Mahdi Ali, who has actually built a close-knit team after years of mostly unremarkable foreign coaches.

The 2010 World Cup seemed to mark a major change. Japan and South Korea were Asia's only representatives in the latter stages and both had domestic hands at the helm. But while there were half-hearted attempts in Japan to keep Takeshi Okada, the federation was soon looking overseas.

In the end, Japan plumped for Alberto Zaccheroni and the Italian is performing well, but if the Asian champions, with plenty of local knowledge in the continent's No. 1 league, prefer to use outside expertise then what hope do the rest have? South Korea almost fired Huh Jung-Moo in 2008 in favour of a high-profile foreigner, but they ultimately decided to stick with their man and he almost took the Taeguk Warriors to the last eight in South Africa.

Foreigners are not automatically better than locals and vice-versa and, given that, the bigger countries should check out their own backyards before looking longingly at the grass on the other side of the fence. Not only is it the right thing to do for sporting reasons - ideally, the passports of players and coach should match as it is, after all, the national team - but it would be a signal to all that Asia does not only produce football talent to compete on the world stage but has the football brains to match. Time to end the inferiority complex.

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