Asia's young tigers deserve five World Cup places

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 1999, 12:00am

The 'Asia in crisis' headlines last week must have caused financial types to choke on their cornflakes.

Surely it is not so, they must have thought. Asia, the wounded tiger, was on the mend and ready to prowl, not crawl into a bush and die.

Closer inspection of the front-page news revealed it was Asia's sporting soundness, not its financial health, that was in question. The crisis centres around Asia's participation in the 2002 World Cup, to be hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan.

Sepp Blatter, who was helped into office as president of football's world governing body FIFA by Asian votes, failed to deliver the three qualifying places requested by the region.

The Asian delegation responded by publicly humiliating Blatter during a walkout out of the FIFA Extraordinary Congress.

Blatter's fury was matched by the ire of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) representatives who feel cheated by FIFA and its president.

Chung Moon-jung, the head of the Korean FA who is tipped as a future president of his country, pushed diplomacy to one side in his denunciation of FIFA.

'It would be a scandal if Asia were to be denied an extra spot. FIFA spends million of dollars developing football and a lot of that money is directed to the 45 teams in Asia. These teams deserve a fair chance to qualify for the World Cup,' said Chung, whose ambitions to be FIFA boss were probably bombed by that statement.

FIFA, whose wisdom has been questioned in the past, has decreed that hosts Japan and South Korea will be joined in the 32-team line up by two other teams from Asia. That's the same number which competed in France 98.

The AFC has rejected that formula and requested three qualifiers along with the co-hosts. Why, they say, should Asia lose two spots just because it's staging the World Cup for the first time? Brick Wall. Impasse. A Peter Schmeichel-defended goal.

The ugly word 'boycott' is now being bandied about in what is turning out to be a high-stakes game. Blatter, who was angered by the Asian walkout, is facing the first big test of his presidency and cannot be seen to back down.

The Asian countries, having snubbed the FIFA chief, also do not want to concede and lose face.

Europe, whose offer of half a play-off place was rejected by the AFC, and Latin America are hanging on grimly to their spots.

It will take the negotiating skills of a Henry Kissinger to resolve the situation and prevent the scenario of a World Cup being held in Asia without any regional qualifiers.

If a mediator is brought in, the Asian side will be able to present a pretty powerful argument. While Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran did not progress far in France 98, they added hugely to the spectacle and played some of the most attractive football of the tournament.

Japan and South Korea are already building towards 2002 and China, Iran and Saudi Arabia - to name but three - have the potential to compete at the highest level.

FIFA should let the Asian tigers loose in their own patch.