Silk and steel in classic match-up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 1993, 12:00am

IT promises to be a classic match-up. The silky, flowing talents of the Ivory Coast against the careful planning and mechanical precision of the Japanese team.

The match date is tomorrow, the venue the Tokyo National Stadium.

And at stake? The Afro-Asian Nations Cup, one of the least-known pieces of soccer silverware.

The trophy was donated by Hong Kong's Dr Henry Fok in 1985 as a way of drawing together the footballing talents of the soccer world's two least-developed continents.

Within FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation and its African equivalent, CAF, always voted together, and that partnership cemented this competition for the two champion national sides of each continent.

But the match is also an interesting study in the different directions world football is taking. Africa's reputation for producing players with sharp, one-touch skills grows with each season.

As a measure of this, dozens of Africans have made the difficult transition from local leagues played on bare, hard tracks to the opulence of European stadiums.

Internationally, this has allowed Africa to enjoy a seeming lock on a number of key world championships, including the recent world under-17 tournament which featured an all-Africa final.

Cameroon's marauding run in the 1990 World Cup ended in bitter defeat but proved that victory was just around the corner.

By contrast, Asia would seem to be years away from the happy, unflappable soccer skills that seem an African birthright.

When Asian players transfer to Europe, the experience seems only too brief, as with Singapore's Fandi Ahmad who quit playing with Groningen when he found the Dutch winter too tough.

More often, Asia's top players prefer to remain at home, where the football is easy and the stardom is easier still.

Set against this, though, is the extraordinary clout that Asia's surging economies give the game. Japanese companies already provide more than 40 per cent of the World Cup's sponsorship, despite never having a team in the final round.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that FIFA officials are already endorsing plans for Japan to host a 2002 World Cup. Other Asian bidders are also expected to enter the fray, like South Korea, Saudi Arabia and a possible bid from China.

Africa may have the skills but Asia has the resources.

BUT whatever the result on the pitch, Asian football will come out the winner from this match.

The Afro-Asian Nations Cup is the first event in a four-year package put together by the AFC and its marketing company.

Sponsors have put their marketing faith in the future of Asian football with contracts that will earn the AFC a record U$10 million over the next four years.

Part of this package includes unparalleled TV coverage levels of Asian football.

The backbone is provided by Hong Kong's STAR TV, which will screen the match live in addition to a further 1,500 hours of AFC events over the next four years.