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May 12, 2013

Side by side, a world away

It won't be an iron curtain but more of a virtual halfway line painted across Asia from Chittagong Hills on the eastern edge of Bangladesh up to the mountainous eastern reaches of Kyrgyzstan.

This is how the Asian Football Confederation could be divided between east and west - and what about when? Not for a while yet but then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said in 1988 that he did not expect to see the end of the Cold War in his lifetime. He's still alive. It was a prediction that Pele would have been proud of.

Nobody is expecting the AFC to split in two quite so soon but, one day, the marriage between the eastern and western sides of the giant continent may come to an end. If football had just been invented and the world was being divided into groupings, then it is unlikely that Asia - more united in what it isn't than what it is - would be crammed into one confederation. There is little culturally, socially, linguistically or historically to connect Tokyo and Tehran, Baghdad and Beijing or Seoul and Sanaa - except football.

The marriage can be fun but is essentially loveless. Divorce has been discussed before. In the late nineties a number of major players from east and west got together to chat about a separation but couldn't agree over who got custody of the children i.e. the 4.5 spots at the World Cup. So they stayed together.

In 2009, East Asia held talks in response to proposals put forward by then-president Mohamed Bin Hammam that could have seen AFC House move from Kuala Lumpur to Qatar. The powers from the east would never have tolerated such a switch. Discussions took place but as nothing happened, nothing happened.

Now the issue is back - albeit weaker than Lord Voldemort in the early Harry Potter books - but it's there loitering in the background. East Asia was already feeling sidelined in AFC politics before the May 2 election to find the body's new head, but what happened when Sheikh Salman of Bahrain was chosen was a real eye-opener.

It was a West Asian political festival. One British observer visiting Kuala Lumpur for the first time noted that for all Asia's talk of its size and potential, its football scene is largely run by tiny countries in the west with the combined population of a Chinese village. An exaggeration made for effect but anybody who had witnessed the campaigning and lobbying at the hotel in the preceding days knew where he was coming from.

It rankled. China, and especially South Korea and Japan, are proud (too much so, say others) of their achievements and how they have led Asian football on the pitch. These are powerful associations led by successful people. What they don't like is being reduced to virtual bystanders when the big decisions are taken.

In the short-term the region hopes to recover some of the ground lost in recent years. East Asia's declaration of support for Salman a day ahead of the vote gave the Bahraini an injection of momentum going into final night and morning of campaign. Perhaps he promised a reward, perhaps not.

What he did do just hours after his win was suggest that Asia's vacant spot on FIFA's Executive committee, while open to everyone, may be better given to the east for the sake of regional balance. It would be a sensible move but may not be enough to ensure that he avoids a challenge from the east in the 2015 election.

Yet so successful has West Asia been in dragging the balance of power its way, some at the opposite end are beginning to think that there is little point scrapping for pieces of power. Whether it is a fair reflection of reality or not, when one partner in a marriage of convenience believes that it is much more convenient for the other, dreams of starting a new life with new friends can be bewitching.

How would the reality look? Perhaps the best way to sell the idea to FIFA is to link arms with the ASEAN region and absorb Oceania - a group of islands drifting aimlessly since Australia left - to make a new confederation of around 30 nations. That leaves South and Central Asia to go west.

If there is a will, a way could be found but the real test would be which kids go where. Asia has 4.5 and allocating these to the satisfaction of east and west is a job that, if you could find them to ask, even the A-Team would turn down. West Asia would probably settle for two - the maximum number it has ever sent to the quadrennial tournament. The minimum in modern times came last time around when none made it.

Two and a half would not be enough for East Asia, South-east Asia and Australia - who sent four teams to South Africa. But there would be hope. Absorbing Oceania makes it three and there are opinions that taking South Pacific under its wing and the rising financial and football clout of the region could help to squeeze out another half or so (after all, Oceania was given a full spot by FIFA in 2002 only to have it snatched away again just six months later). Three and a half would perhaps be acceptable. Four would be celebrated.

There is a long way to go before that point is reached, if it ever is. There are plenty that would have to be convinced. Swapping West Asia for the South Pacific may sound pleasant (though trips are not shorter) but midweek games in Riyadh and Tehran have been the making of many a young player from the east in a way that the best of Oceania could not match.

Unity, a major theme of the recent election campaign, is no longer an abstract ideal for Asia but some semblance of it is now a practical necessity. There are ups and downs in every marriage but if it continues to feel unloved and unappreciated, East Asia could attempt to snatch as many of its children as possible and start a new life.

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