Right field: Nations' souls laid bare in football

Correlation between culture and the game is alarmingly accurate among Asiancountries - look at their World Cup results

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 10:57pm

Perhaps the greatest thing about sport is that it offers us a window into a culture. We do not need National Geographic to educate us because the games people play and how they play them is far more analytical. Football, as we know, is the world's sport. And the world, as we know, can be a pretty nasty place.

During this World Cup, Uruguay's Luis Suarez became a global villain and an ongoing punch line thanks to sinking his teeth into Italy's Giorgio Chiellini. The soccer world has long known Suarez is a nasty piece of work and now the rest of the world knows it as well. And while Suarez is a ridiculously gifted footballer, it hardly compensates for his long list of egregious offences on the pitch.

Of course, by now you know Suarez's story. As a teenager growing up in Montevideo, he had to make a choice between playing football for a living or matriculating at Oxford. Well, not quite. Suarez was raised in a bruising neighbourhood where options were few. Survival was priority number one and whatever means necessary were employed, regardless of who it may have offended.

Football may be the beautiful game, but by nature it is a game played by some pretty desperate characters, many of whom employ brazen deception

It hardly excuses his behaviour, but it helps to understand it and he is certainly not alone in his lack of refinement. Most of the world lacks the luxury of refinement, a fact that has become crystal clear during this World Cup. Football may be the beautiful game, but by nature it is a game played by some pretty desperate characters, many of whom employ brazen deception.

The brief moments of spectacular artistry have largely given way to a nasty, gruelling affair where chicanery is often rewarded. You want pretty? You should have caught the World Polo Championships at Chateau de Chantilly in France a few years back. Hermes was the title sponsor of that one. For the rest of us, it is football and some of the worst acting this side of the porn industry.

So why is it that Asia is so embarrassingly putrid on the world stage? It is not like deception is alien to our cultures out here and there is certainly no lack of the type of desperate situations that seem to produce a legion of hungry, ambitious and nasty players in the rest of the world.

But perhaps nowhere can you more tellingly find the correlation between sport and culture than in Asia. Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia, were basically gone before the first ball was kicked with no wins in 12 matches and all four finished bottom of their group. And this is the cream of Asian football.

With the exception of Australia, which has a long history of excelling in sports and was basically granted a free pass to all future World Cups when they were moved into the Asian federation in 2006, there seems little room for optimism. Japan is meticulously building a soccer culture and even went so far as to hire an accomplished foreign coach in Italy's Alberto Zaccheroni. But when push comes to shove they lack assertiveness and have long seemed content to play for a face-saving scoreless draw.

In fact, just as saving face is the bane of Asia, it is also the bane of Asian football. Thailand is ravenous for football and with a population of 67 million they should be able to find some decent players. But go to any sporting event in the country and in the 24-page official match programme, the first 20 pages have pictures of sporting officials.

Indonesia is also mad for the game and has more then 200 million people. Surely some of them can play? However, when the head of the Indonesian Football Association is still allowed to do his job from a prison cell while serving time for corruption, as Nurdin Halid was a few years back, it tells you not only everything about the state of the game, but about the state of the country as well.

And then there is China, all 1.3 billion people, featuring an enviable pool of towering and talented athletes. If any country in Asia can compete physically with the rest of the sporting world, it is China. But with an education system based on rote learning that squashes any sort of imagination and an authoritarian regime beset by corruption and lacking in transparency or accountability, it is no surprise they did not even make the final round of 10 in the Asian qualifiers.

Most of these cultures create huge home-field advantages, particularly in the business world. When they leave home and have to compete on a level playing field, they often look lost and meek. Why should their football teams be any different?