Toothless Asia

Toothless Asia
South Korea players react after losing their 2014 World Cup Group H soccer match against Belgium at the Corinthians arena in Sao Paulo.

By the time this article goes to print, all four teams representing the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) would have left Brazil, arrived home and unpacked their bags, ready to turn on the television to watch the business end of the 2014 World Cup Finals - probably thinking of what might have been.

The collective record of Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea makes for dreadful reading: 12 games, no wins, 25 goals conceded, nine scored and a mere three points collected.

Former Thailand coach Steve Darby believes the goals scored statistic is the biggest factor behind Asia's struggles in international football.

"This is something I've thought a lot about.. and the biggest weakness from what I've seen is that there's a massive gap to be filled - the lack of out and out strikers," Darby told The New Paper yesterday.

The Englishman has spent a lifetime coaching in Asia, from Australia to Singapore, Malaysia and Bahrain.

"That seems to be the only logical explanation," he continued, pointing to the abundance of foreign forwards in domestic leagues in the region.

From 2003 to 2013, the Japanese J-League has seen foreign front-men top its goalscorers' charts nine times (twice the award was shared); while South Korea's K-League witnessed seven foreigners win the accolade.

Singapore's own S.League has never seen a local-born top-scorer since its inception in 1996.

Former Singapore international defender R Sasikumar agrees with Darby.

Asian nations hire top quality coaches who get their teams right tactically, and a number of players ply their trade in Europe and can cope with the physical aspects of the game, but world-class strikers are the missing ingredient.

"I think physically and tactically Asian teams can match the rest of the world -look at what Iran did in their 1-0 loss to Argentina, they could have won if they were more clinical in front of goal," said Sasikumar.

"It's very evident in Asian leagues -and in some sense England is facing the same problem as well - that they are not producing strikers."

Carlos Queiroz, who has confirmed his resignation as coach of Iran, thinks the problem runs deeper still.

Speaking after his team were booted out of Brazil, he said: "It's because of the competition system, the training and organisation. You cannot copy Europe because the day you think you are close, they are one step ahead because they also progress.

Worst Conditions

"But the (Asian) officials persist in copying Europe and year after year the gap is higher and higher. It is a pity because 60 per cent of the money in football comes from Asia and they have the worst conditions."

Darby doesn't agree with the former Real Madrid and Portugal coach.

He says his homeland could possibly learn from the organisation witnessed in Japan.

"Part of me says Japan are way ahead of England in several areas, like coaching and youth development," he insisted.

"I wish I had a better explanation, but the problems with goal-scoring is what I have seen."

Both Darby and Sasi suggest tweaking the foreign player rule in Asian leagues.

Darby used big-spending Johor Darul Ta'zim in the Malaysian Super League as an example: With Argentinians Luciano Figueroa and Jorge Diaz leading the front line, the newly-crowned Malaysian champions have two of the most feared regional forwards on the bench -Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Safee Sali.

It is a situation he believes is replicated throughout the continent.

"Malaysia banned foreign players in the past (allowing them back in 2012), and they benefited from it. Moving back to it will weaken the league, but that's the trade-off," said Darby.

Malaysia allows three foreigners on the pitch at any time, while Singapore allows for five and the J-League four, and, inevitably, talented foreign goal-scorers are the most sought after players.

"Goal-scoring is an obvious problem," said Sasi.

"(Asian leagues) must put a cap on foreigners especially in attacking positions, if not this will be a perennial problem."

This article was first published on JUNE 29, 2014.
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