x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

How the west (of Asia) has won

After five years of a nearly constant gloom, west Asia of late has shown signs of moving to a more equal footing with their eastern rivals.

It has been a hard half-decade for Gulf and west Asia football on the continental and international scene. Shut out of the 2010 World Cup finals. Nowhere to be seen at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Unable to crack the top three at the 2011 Asian Cup. Spectators as clubs from the east won five consecutive Asian Champions League titles from 2006.

The most recent Fifa world rankings find Asia sides in these positions: Japan 17, Australia 20, South Korea 31; but Iran 42, Uzbekistan 73, Jordan 81. And, tellingly, Saudi Arabia 98.

The Saudis and Iran are the bellwethers of west Asia football. Between them, they have made seven of the 10 World Cup finals appearances earned by west Asia sides. When they sneeze, and they have been sneezing since 2006, the rest of Asia's western half catches a cold.

When neither were up to reaching South Africa 2010, no one else in the west was able to step up. Bahrain came closest. After shocking Saudi in the Asia play-off between final-round third-place sides two years ago, Bahrain were unable to score a goal against New Zealand's squad of part-time players in the intercontinental play-off, and the Kiwis went to South Africa, instead.

A cottage industry has grown up around explaining the continent's eastern tilt. To deconstruct it is to find Japan, Australia and South Korea towering, of late, over Asian football, even as China continues to struggle.

The most concise and probably most fitting answers seems to include these two points: Japan and South Korea approached the game with patient and comprehensive plans that ultimately yielded strong sides, impressive national leagues and several players plying their trade with some of the great clubs of the world; and the Aussies are just sports maniacs.

Between those three worthies and the serious sides of west Asia lies thousands of miles of football irrelevance, encompassing China, southeast Asia and the subcontinent. It isn't like Thailand and Bangladesh have been spanking the west, though North Korea occasionally does.

After five years of a nearly constant gloom, west Asia of late has shown signs of moving to a more equal footing with their eastern rivals. History may show it commenced on November 5 when Al Sadd of Qatar won the Asian Champions League (ACL) title.

Since that shoot-out victory, Iraq has defeated China, Oman shut out Australia, Uzbekistan beat North Korea in Pyongyang and little Lebanon took the measure of South Korea last night. In the context of recent years, that is a remarkable run of results for west Asia nations.

Perhaps it is coincidence that all of that followed Sadd's victory over Jeonbuk Motors, before a crowd of 41,000 in South Korea. Or perhaps not. Sadd's ACL run revealed a buccaneering side that went right up to the border of impropriety, and sometimes charged right across it, an edgy, supremely confident club that seemed to intimidate what appeared to be a more individually talented Jeonbuk side.

Sadd entered the tournament as a wild card, won two matches, captured their group, survived the quarter-finals of the knockout phase, only because a Sepahan player was found to be ineligible, then took the measure of Suwon Bluewings in one of the most controversial ties in ACL history.

Sadd scored the clinching goal in the first leg when a Suwon player was on the ground, injured. The Koreans assumed Sadd would kick the ball out, as required of polite sportsmen. Instead, a pass was sent ahead to Mamadou Niang, who went in one-on-one with the goalkeeper, beat him, and a 10-minute brawl, a YouTube sensation, ensued.

The episode was widely described as "embarrassing" and "disgraceful", but that was Sadd winning 2-1 on aggregate.

In the final, Sadd were one big ball of chippiness, pulling, bumping, shoving, tackling late, diving and earning eight cautions and a red card. Despite all that, when the match went to a shoot-out, it was clear the reckless side from Qatar would win it, and the Algerian hard man, Nadir Belhadj, clinched it with a no-doubt-about-it spot kick.

"Joga bonito" and "Al Sadd" should not appear in the same sentence, and they will never win any fair play trophies. But perhaps their Whatever It Takes approach has somehow soaked into the region's football consciousness. More likely, it just preceded an overdue upturn in proficiency among west Asia sides. Either way, the recent results are welcome in this part of the world.