Just on the second day of 2018 FIFA World Cup, Iran broke a trend that had been haunting Asia since 2014. The Carlos Queiroz-coached side rode some luck to defeat Morocco and registered the first win by any Asian team since 2010.
As things have turned out, the ongoing World Cup is a huge improvement from the disappointing 2014 edition in Brazil, when all four Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams finished at the bottom of their groups without a win.
This is also the first time since 2010 that three different AFC teams have won a match at the World Cup. For the first time an Asian team, Japan, beat a South American nation Colombia while Saudi Arabia stunned Egypt.
Japan still have a bright chance of qualifying to the Round of 16 from Group H while South Korea have a faint mathematical possibility to advance from Group F.
Though Asia’s performance is not awe-inspiring it definitely shows the continent, which has supplied most number of official sponsors to the 2018 World Cup, in a brighter light.
And a general trend in this regard cannot be missed that is the growing number of Asian footballers in Europe.
Iran, arguably the most improved Asian side with a win over Morocco and a draw against Portugal, has 12 footballers from their 23-man squad playing in Europe. This is big jump from six Iranians in European leagues in 2014.
Japan, who can seal a Round of 16 spot with a win over Poland, have 14 players in Europe, while it was 12 in 2014. Another AFC country – Australia – have 16 players in Europe while it was 12 in 2014.
Only South Korea’s numbers have dipped since the previous edition. This time five Koreans are playing in Europe as compared to 10 in 2014. Their performance have dipped too as they have lost their first two group games.
Saudi Arabia don’t have any player outside their country but in January they sent nine players to Spanish clubs as part of a deal with La Liga.
“The main difference between Asian players and Europeans is that the latter gets more top level competitive games every week. That changes the mentality, the skills. At World Cup, You need to have that to exposure,” Wes Brown, former Manchester United player and TV pundit for official World Cup broadcasters Sony Pictures Network, says.
“That might be one of the reason why Asian teams are yet to give tough competition to the European teams. That might also explain why the African players are doing well despite little financial support from their country. They get picked up by the European clubs at an early age and the basics are strong.”
Queiroz echoes Brown’s views. “There are some teams like Morocco or Senegal we say are African teams, but they’re not African teams. They’re African players playing in Europe, so all the players who benefit from being in Europe can help national teams,” he said after the loss to Spain.
“Only the nations that have the opportunity to bring players to Europe have a chance to be closer. For Asia the gap is higher.”
Japan the dark horse
Brown believes that Japan is the dark horse among the Asian countries. “They are wonderfully placed in their group and the result against Colombia was crucial,” he said.
Indeed, Japan’s focus on a strong domestic structure has seen them providing most number of players to Europe among Asian countries in recent times. With Qatar’s investment rising in European Clubs and China following the reverse model by pumping money to bring top talents to their country, it would be interesting to see if Asia indeed produces better results at world stage.