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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

What Asian Cup and AFCON tell us about the 2026 World Cup

On paper, the identity of the finalists for the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup points to very different competitions.

In the Asian Cup, Qatar’s 3-1 victory over Jordan was a meeting of two underdogs, even if Qatar were the hosts and defending champions. To put things in perspective, those two nations have a combined population of 14million; around 10 per cent of the population of Japan and one per cent of the population of China.

On the other hand, Nigeria versus Ivory Coast was a meeting between two countries that have produced as many great footballers as any other African nation this century.

But look beyond the finalists and the competitions had a similar theme: a lack of truly dominant superpowers. That pattern was certainly more pronounced in the Asian Cup, where South Korea lost to Jordan, and Japan were eliminated by Iran. But the Africa Cup of Nations was highly unusual, in that it provided eight different quarter-finalists from the eight who reached that stage two years ago.

Jordan celebrate beating South Korea (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

That can be considered in positive and negative ways.

Unpredictability is good. That’s the beauty of a knockout tournament: shocks are more likely to happen. And, on a wider note, it points to a recurring pattern from recent international tournaments, which was particularly pronounced at last year’s Women’s World Cup: what could broadly be considered international football’s middling nations have reduced the gap to the relatively strong nations, in part because they now have scouting tools to prepare for their upcoming challenge.

Huge thrashings barely happen at tournaments these days. The highest victory at the Asian Cup was merely 4-0, on two occasions. It was also 4-0 (twice) in the Africa Cup of Nations. The expansion of both tournaments to 24 teams brings an unsatisfactory structure, but there have been few issues in terms of minnows being out of their depth. Similarly, the European Championship could expand to 32 teams and would not noticeably drop in quality — Sweden, Norway and the Republic of Ireland haven’t even qualified for the play-offs, and would hardly be no-hopers.

But the flip side is about the ability of these continent’s top sides to challenge at the World Cup.

The bigger sides from the Asian Football Confederation have, if anything, regressed over the last 15 years. At World Cup 2006, for example, Australia travelled to Germany with a very strong XI and were unlucky to be defeated by eventual champions Italy in the round of 16. It felt as if Australia had made a significant leap forward, but what appeared the start of a period of competing with the world’s top nations was merely one golden generation. They impressively battled through to the last 16 in 2022, where they were again narrowly defeated by the eventual champions, Argentina. But it was an against-the-odds underdog success.

Australia’s Asian Cup squad didn’t feature any Premier League players, aside from goalkeeper Joe Gauci, recently signed as a backup by Aston Villa. That would have seemed unlikely in the days of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill.

Australia’s players after exiting the Asian Cup (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, both looked seriously good at World Cup 2010 — again, both were eliminated at the last-16 stage, but they appeared the emerging forces, enjoying the World Cup 2002 legacy. But again, that seems to have faded away. Their generation of players is no better; an eight-year-old who fell in love with football in 2002 would be a veteran of 30 now.

Japan made a decent run to the round of 16 of the World Cup again in 2022, defeating Germany and Spain in the group stage. But, surprisingly, they haven’t won the Asian Cup since 2011 and were deservedly beaten by Iran this time around. South Korea continue to produce a handful of players good enough for elite European competition, but nothing more. The appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann was ill-advised, and they played poorly throughout the competition, relying on four goals in second-half stoppage time to reach the semis.

In truth, the standard of play in the knockout stage of the Asian Cup has been poor, characterised by a lack of faith in technical quality, a lot of overly cautious play and a sluggish tempo. Things were better over in the Ivory Coast, although the hosts fluked their way through to the final after a group stage so dreadful that they parted company with their manager Jean-Louis Gasset. That doesn’t reflect well on everyone else.

All this means, with the next World Cup only two years away, it’s the same old nations likely to triumph. The bookmakers’ favourites are the three traditional giants from South America (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) and the usual western European nations (France, England, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium). Then come the United States and Mexico, their chances boosted due to hosting the tournament. African and Asian sides are way down the list — as, for that matter, are a couple of South American sides who were on the rise a decade ago, but have since declined, such as Chile and Colombia.

And while Morocco made history by becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals in 2022, at the end of a positive tournament overall for African nations, it’s worth remembering that the majority of their side were born in Europe, and effectively deemed not good enough to represent stronger nations. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and credit to Walid Regragui for turning them into a resilient team. But if others are looking for inspiration, it’s not the most easily replicable model for most.

It’s also worth considering each continent’s allocation for World Cup 2026, the first tournament to feature 48 nations. Africa are guaranteed nine places, and Asia eight — these may rise to 10 and nine because of inter-continental play-offs. There are various factors to take into account in terms of how many places each confederation should be entitled to: overall quality, breadth of quality, number of entrants, and perhaps total population.

Uzbekistan celebrate during the Asian Cup (Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)

On the evidence of the last couple of weeks, Africa probably deserves more than nine places, and Asia fewer than eight. The competition’s serious minnows will likely come from the Asian confederation. If the qualifiers were the same eight that reached the quarter-finals this month, it would be the relatively established quartet of Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran, plus the two finalists Qatar and Jordan, and rank outsiders Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

To see nations such as the latter two in a World Cup tournament would feel surreal. But then look at their results against the finalists: Uzbekistan were only eliminated by Qatar on penalties, and Tajikistan only lost 1-0 to Jordan courtesy of an unfortunate own goal.

So here’s a World Cup prediction, two years out. The real outsiders, those who wouldn’t have been at the tournament if it hadn’t expanded to 48 sides, will fare much better than expected — perhaps not progressing from the groups, but not embarrassing themselves.

But the sides who should now be true continental giants from Asia and Africa — and probably North America too — won’t rival the European and South American powers any more than they did in, say, 2010. In many ways, football has become more global over the last 15 years, but not in terms of who might actually win the World Cup.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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