Latest failures once again show deficiencies in Asian game

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am

Maybe I'm tired and maybe you're tired too. Maybe you're tired from staying up late to watch this orgy of World Cup soccer. But me, I'm tired for a different reason. I'm tired of the excuses and promises being made about the embarrassment known as Asian soccer.

After encouraging results on their home turf in 2002, with Japan making it to the second round and South Korea all the way to the semi-finals, this World Cup would prove how far Asian soccer has truly progressed on an international level.

That thud you just heard was your answer. Of the four teams officially sent from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), none advanced to the second round and only South Korea came even remotely close. But while Iran and Saudi Arabia may officially be in the AFC, as far as I am concerned they are in a different world. I am talking about the Orient here.

This is the part of the world where soccer is so big that for the first time in 15 years I could see Hong Kong harbour again for two straight weeks because so many people stayed up late to watch the World Cup that they were too tired to go to work and contaminate our air.

The governments around here can't clean up the pollution but the World Cup can. That's how big soccer is. In Seoul, close to 700,000 fans dutifully jammed a downtown square in the wee hours of the morning to watch their team. And what did they get? Excuses, of course.

'Most of the [refereeing] decisions didn't go our way and some were not to our liking,' said South Korean coach Dick Advocaat after his squad were eliminated 2-0 by a surprisingly strong Swiss team. It had nothing to do with getting out-muscled on virtually every corner and free-kick; no, it was the refs.

With 15 losses in 18 games against European teams in World Cup competition, South Korea have to look outside of Asia to see how to improve. They are still the only Asian side who can feel good about themselves. They beat Togo and drew with France - pretty good results in a tough bracket. Japan, on the other hand, Asia's champions, were out-classed, out-coached and out-hustled.

Talismanic midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata was embarrassingly ineffective and had a woeful supporting cast around him trying to execute coach Zico's uninspiring game plan. This is the best you have Asia? After a stunning 3-1 loss to Australia, and an uninspiring 0-0 draw with Croatia, Brazil put the Japanese out of their misery by beating them 4-1.

'Brazil are a couple of levels above us,' said Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura. 'We didn't use our technical skills and Brazil defended better and attacked with more pace. It was very difficult for us to ...'

Zzzz ... Sorry, you talking to me? Look, the simple truth is both Japan and South Korea are beset by dinosaurs running their football associations. Until their stubborn cultures accept change and until they use training methods to get physically stronger and employ enlightened and aggressive game plans, it is going to be the same old, same old for Japan and South Korea.

Now, imagine how bad China must be. At least these four teams managed to qualify for the tournament, something China couldn't do. In the past, mainland sports officials failed to understand that while every country on the planet is invited to the Olympics, you still have to qualify for the World Cup.

'I can promise fans things are going to change,' the Chinese Football Association's new marketing expert, Wong Yingquan, said this week. 'China will become an international footballing force by the [2008] Olympics and the next World Cup. We will spend millions of dollars to rid the game of scandal, hire the best coaches, obtain the best training facilities, and get the best players.'

Well, I wish him well. But in China, the sports officials Wong will answer to are not only traditionally unenlightened, they are above the law. They don't discuss, they issue edicts.

And what makes him think he can clean up the corruption in Chinese soccer when virtually every other facet of life on the mainland is deeply infected by the same scourge? Corruption is at the core of China, trotting a couple of supposedly crooked soccer referees in front of a firing squad won't change that. Even his own people know it.

'Domestic games are too boring and full of cheats,' Zhou Anfu, a 26-year-old mainland fan said this week. 'I don't want to hear anything about Chinese football because it's going to take at least 50 years to get anywhere.'

He's tired, I'm tired and, frankly, so is Asian soccer. It may take some time, but hopefully someone will wake us up.