When actions don't match words
WHEN senior members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) delegation meet Sepp Blatter to negotiate another half World Cup qualifying spot early next year, they might well want to ask the smooth-talking supremo exactly what he meant by remarks he made in Hong Kong in June while on the last leg of his global campaign to rustle up votes for the FIFA presidency.
Asked by reporters if Asia's three-and-a-half World Cup qualifying places would remain, even though two places were already guaranteed to hosts Japan and South Korea, Blatter gave an emphatic answer: '. . . now Asia has four teams. In 2002 Asia has the organisation, so the berths which go to organising national associations are not deducted from the number they have been given out.' 'So Asia will have two because they will have Japan and South Korea and the three-and-a-half minimum will remain and possibly four or possibly more.
'But first we have to see the results of the World Cup. But definitely Asia will not have less. So don't fear that because you have two organisers that you lose one of the teams.' Are Blatter's words open to interpretation? It is hard to see how they could be.
And it helps to explain why Asian football has reacted so furiously to news that the region will not, in fact, retain their three-and-half qualifying places in 2002.
A FIFA meeting in Zurich decided earlier this month that only two places would be made available for Asian qualifying teams, with hosts Japan and South Korea gaining the other two, making a total of four instead of the five-and-a-half Asia had been expecting.
Since that FIFA announcement, the discontent in Asia has grown. Peter Velappan, the AFC's general secretary, was the first to record his anger, telling reporters the decision was 'disgraceful'.
This week, the Olympic Council of Asia's president, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Saber - who is also head of Kuwaiti football - upped the ante by insisting that the only way to respond would be an Asian boycott of the World Cup.
The mood was summed up by Sri Lanka football's general secretary Manilal Fernando. 'Asia has one third of the world's population.
'We have 46 members in FIFA, one quarter of the total. If you want a World Cup without one third of the world's population properly represented, it's unfair,' said Fernando.
Fernando was present at the AFC executive committee's emergency meeting in Bangkok this week which agreed that if FIFA's executive committee did not reverse its decision at its next meeting in March, Asia would carry out its boycott threat. In return, the AFC has dropped its claims to the extra one-and-a-half places, asking only for the half-place gained by a play-off with the Oceania zone.
'We wish to inform [Blatter] not to push us to take this drastic decision,' said Velappan.
Viewed against the backdrop of Blatter's earlier assurances, it is easy to understand Asian ire at perceived injustice from FIFA.
However, it is hard to argue that Asia deserves more places in 2002 than it had at France 98. The record of the region's four teams that took part in this year's tournament speaks for itself: played 12, lost nine, drawn two (against Belgium, South Africa), won one (against the US). Even so, Asia will actually have more guaranteed places in 2002 - four - than they did in France, three-and-a-half.
The promise shown by Asian teams in USA '94, when Saudi Arabia reached the second round and South Korea scored draws with Spain and Bolivia in the first round, was not taken a stage further in France and that is, without a doubt, what lies behind FIFA's decision.
Blatter may well have been an advocate of increased Asian representation but he will have come up against a brick wall in the shape of federations from Europe, South America and Africa, all of whom would have their World Cup quotas threatened by any increased allocation to Asia.
Conversely, it is those federations who have the most to gain from an Asian boycott. They know only too well that if Asia does go ahead with its threats, it will only mean more places for their own teams.