x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

World Cup qualifying for 2014 has seen more of the same from Asia

Hopes of seeing new countries qualifying for World Cup from the zone have evaporated, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Uzbekistan, in white, were better than other Arab-speaking teams such as Qatar. Anvar Ilyasov / AP Photo
Uzbekistan, in white, were better than other Arab-speaking teams such as Qatar. Anvar Ilyasov / AP Photo

After nearly two years and 146 matches involving 43 nations, the whole of World Cup qualifying in the sprawling Asian Football Confederation (AFC) turned out to be one long celebration of the status quo.

Japan and South Korea again made their way into the tournament, earning, respectively, their fifth and eighth consecutive trips to the finals.

Australia advanced for the third successive time, twice since it joined the AFC. And Iran took the fourth automatic berth, which was no great surprise; the Islamic Republic has reached three of the past five World Cups.

That leaves those who were eliminated from the competition also looking at similar results from four years ago, albeit less pleasant.

China remains the planet's biggest underachievers.

For all their Olympics successes, China is a footballing nation, and their latest failure (eliminated, again, before the final stage) is a deep embarrassment - as it should be for a country with the world's No 1 population and No 2 economy.

But the Chinese seem doomed to early exits until they root out the corruption and cynicism in their game. The subcontinent and its neighbours reinforced their own status as the last stretch of territory in the world where football Just Does Not Matter.

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar … pretty much do not care they cannot compete. For several of them, the monolith of cricket seems to leave every other sporting endeavour in the shade.

South-east Asia remains miles behind. The likes of Vietnam and Malaysia want to compete but their infrastructure remains weak.

Only three teams from the region (Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand) made Asia's final 20, and among them they won only four points from 18 matches.

And in the west of the continent, the 11 Arabic-speaking nations failed to gain one of the four guaranteed berths for the second successive quadrennium - after having had a representative for seven consecutive iterations, beginning with Kuwait in 1982. It was Iraq in 1986, the UAE in 1990 and then Saudi Arabia four times. And it all seems very long ago.

What has happened to football among Asia's Arabs? In large part, Japan, South Korea and Australia have happened to them, with those three taking 75 per cent of the automatic berths. The first two have strong leagues, money and strong administration, as well as ambitious players who have often succeeded in Europe's finest leagues.

The Aussies? They are just good at about every sport they try.

When the AFC accepted their membership, Asia gained a First World country of steady institutions that was, with its Anglophonic status, liable to generate more global attention for the region.

But Australia also is now crowding out sides from what we traditionally consider "Asia".

The AFC's Arab nations have other issues, beyond failing to keep up with the eastern powers. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen have significant internal problems. Jordan and Oman have little money and weak domestic leagues.

The UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain have small populations and are reliant on "golden generations" to make a difference. And Saudi Arabia has fallen to pieces, unarguably but mysteriously.

The one outsider to make something of a mark, during this stretch of qualifying, has been Uzbekistan.

Had not Iran won in South Korea on Tuesday, the Uzbeks would have spent the night celebrating their first World Cup berth. As it is, they still have a chance.

They will be clear favourites to defeat Jordan in the home-and-away fifth-place tie, in September, and the winner of that faces the No 5 team out of South America qualifying. At the moment, Conmebol's fifth-place side is Uruguay, which would present real problems.

But Venezuela and Peru could finish there, too, and the Uzbeks, with their direct and physical Soviet style, would have a fighting chance.

Thus, business as usual, in Asia. After 146 kick-offs, the usual suspects are going to Fifa's big event.

Meanwhile, we wait for China to emerge from its stupor, wonder if the subcontinent will ever join the football community and began to question how a west Asia side other than Iran can keep up with the eastern powers that be.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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