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Sunday, June 23, 2024

The gap between Asia’s best and the rest has closed

DOHA, Qatar – History was made at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday, even before Akram Afif etched his place in Asian Cup folklore as Qatar triumphed 3-1 over Jordan and became just the fifth nation to go back-to-back in Asia’s men’s showpiece.

Reflective of the narrative that has come to define the tournament, it was the first Asian Cup final without one of Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, or Australia as a competitor. This quintet has mostly had the run of things in Asia for decades, providing nine of the previous 12 Asian Cup finalists and monopolising the continent’s places at the World Cup; since 1994, of the 22 qualification spots Asia has secured at FIFA’s showpiece event, only two — China in 2002 and North Korea in 2010 — have been drawn from beyond this cohort.

And yet none were to be seen on Saturday.

– Asian Cup: Home | Bracket | Team guide
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In their place were Qatar and Jordan, just the third time that two Arab nations had squared off in its decider — a contest between “brothers” it was declared pregame — and the third occasion that an Arab coach had led a team to this stage, with Jordan’s Hussein Ammouta joining Saudi Arabians Khalil Al-Zayani and Nasser Al-Johar. Just 14 months on from Ammouta’s homeland of Morocco becoming the first Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal, it was another point of pride for the region.

But in the great spirit of reflections penned immediately after a tournament, Qatar’s second successive continental crown, as well as the showings of nations such as Jordan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, and sentimental favourites Tajikistan — the tournament’s “black horses,” as their coach Petar Šegrt christened them — also opens the door to a discussion on just what this past month in Doha means for the future of Asian football. So too, do the performances of the traditional powerhouses, who failed to fire across the tournament.

Because it seems the gap that once existed between the continent’s best and the rest is not as wide as it once was. Or at the very least, it wasn’t in Doha.

For those on the upswing, it appears an increasingly globalised game and the contemporary ease of access to quality information and data are driving a rapid acceleration in their tactical aptitude, physical preparedness and technical ability. Just one player in either squad in Saturday’s final, Jordan and Montpellier ace Musa Al-Taamari, plays in Europe — a fact that proved to be no barrier in reaching the final.

While there’s inevitably still some flotsam to navigate, coaches such as Ammouta, Šegrt, Héctor Cúper of Syria, Shin Tae-Yong at Indonesia, and Uzbek boss Srečko Katanec are of a high calibre, and their ilk can be increasingly found across the continent. These coaches bring the acumen required to navigate the challenges faced by these rising nations while maximising the talent at their disposal.

This is supplemented by investment in not just senior setups but also junior national team programs, such as Qatar’s Aspire Academy or the Uzbekistan junior setup. Players from across the continent are now receiving greater opportunities at younger ages to develop and, crucially, being exposed to top-level coaching. That’s before they’re even in a position to take advantage of the increased investment in club football that the Saudi Pro League and other competitions are seeing across Asia.

Thus, whereas major nations in the past could perhaps get away with relying on their inherent advantages or having the sheer talent of a few European-based players, the former minnows have sufficiently raised their level to a point wherein they are now good enough not only take a punch but respond in kind too. They do so mostly by being resolute, well disciplined, and taking their moments to press or transition with positivity and incisiveness. It’s not always pretty, but it can be devastatingly effective.

The expansion of the Asian Cup plays a role here too, with the shift to a 24-team format giving nations more exposure to top-level football that has often been denied them by a funnelled AFC World Cup qualification process. And with four third-placed finishers advancing to the knockouts (like finalists Jordan did) there is an incentive to stay tight and competitive, increasing the number of sides that will build a style around being difficult to break down. That latter scenario is something that will probably also occur at the World Cup in 2026 as it grows to 48 teams, challenging not just the top tier but also those former mid-tier nations that now find themselves elevated in the pecking order.



Asian Cup champions Qatar celebrate at victory parade in Doha

Qatar celebrate back-to-back Asian Cup titles after beating Jordan 3-1.

But while the rise of standards across Asia is evident, it’s also just one face of the coin. As the past month in Doha suggests the heavyweights, even acknowledging diminishing returns, aren’t helping themselves out much when it comes to maintaining the gap. All five of the aforementioned continental powers — Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia — suffered various levels of entropy with the ball and an inability to break down perceived lesser opponents despite occupying five of the top seven slots in the possession statistic, with Jürgen Klinsmann’s South Korea a prime example.

No team in Doha had more of the ball than the Taeguk Warriors — a whopping 69.6% of possession across the tournament — but they consistently, maddeningly, failed to do much with it. Indeed, while much was made of the goals they conceded — Klinsmann’s side failed to keep a clean sheet all tournament — most of Korea’s problems could be traced back to their foibles in possession.

After an opening day, 3-1 win over Bahrain, the Taeguk Warriors would score just a further two goals from open play in five remaining games, one of which was against Malaysia. They went almost an hour between shots on target against Saudi Arabia in the round of 16, only breaking through late when the Saudis dropped deep enough to make the Mariana Trench jealous. Against a Socceroos outfit that had just 26% of the ball, Korea still only produced two shots on target before Hwang Hee-Chan‘s penalty in the 96th minute sent the game to extra time.

Despite having 70% of the ball against Jordan in the semifinal — and fielding the likes of Hwang, Son Heung-Min and Lee Kang-In in attack — Korea would fail to register a single shot on target as their good luck during the tournament finally ran out. Or they were found out, depending on your view of Klinsmann.

Of course, minnows sitting back and making better credentialled nations beat them is nothing new, but Asia’s powers, so far, have failed to adjust their approaches accordingly. The gang of five will still be able to match up against the best on stages such as World Cups thanks to long-term planning, technical improvements, and the more open nature of these games — it was no coincidence Australia’s best game was against Korea, where they didn’t need to have the ball — but they must also become comfortable with the onus of favouritism and rediscovering ways of penetrating well-organised, robust, and deep-sitting defences.

Rightly or wrongly, alarm bells probably won’t be ringing just yet. This tournament carried the added complication of being postponed following China’s withdrawal as hosts — affecting squad planning and placing it in the middle of the European club season — and relocating it to the Middle East, where teams from outside the region have traditionally struggled. Handicaps that are all valid, so they can’t be dismissed.

All five also made the knockout stages, with the two that reached the semifinals accounting for the elimination of the other three. The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams and the doubling of Asia’s contingent means that nothing short of an unmitigated disaster would need to strike for them to miss out. And perhaps providing an insight into why some of these nations were content to frame their tournament in the context of an ongoing period of renewal, success at the Asian Cup has carried little correlation with a performance at the world stage: Japan in 2002 were the last Asian Cup winners to go on and even win a game at the subsequent World Cup.

So it may be too premature to suggest the hegemony of Asia’s top five nations stands on a precipice. Maybe we have to wait for the 2026 World Cup for that. But the past month in Doha shows that perhaps they shouldn’t take Asia’s stratification for granted, and that, at some point, others are going to start knocking on the door. Qatar, perhaps, could argue they already are given they’ve now won two straight Asian Cups, but breaking the cycle and making an impact at the 2026 World Cup will probably need to happen first.

However, the 2023 Asian Cup did show one thing for certain: In world football, now more than ever, reputation and history counts for naught.

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