What does record Asian qualification for Qatar 2022 mean for the region?

For the first time in World Cup history, a tournament will play host to a record six teams from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The achievement follows on from Russia 2018, where the previous record was set by the five Asian teams (Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia) who qualified for that year’s tournament.

On a surface level it appears that the qualification of six teams to Qatar 2022 wholly reflects the region’s growing stature within world football. However when viewed in the context that Qatar is obviously assured a spot as hosts and that Australia’s result on penalties against Peru glosses over what was undoubtedly a campaign dominated by pragmatic thinking over possible effective utilisation, one must ponder the impact Asian teams as a whole will have on the tournament, particularly when looking at past editions.

According to Soccerment, an analytics platform focusing on accelerating the adoption of data analytics by a wider audience of football fans, Asian teams struggled most with shot accuracy (15% against a 29% tournament average) in Russia four years ago. In addition, it appeared Asian teams valued long balls the most of any continent in the tournament as well as hitting a collective average top speed of 27.7 – the lowest at the tournament that year.

Japan v Belgium

Of course, one has to comparatively look at the squad composition, subsequent utilisation and ultimate effectiveness of these five sides versus the teams in their respective groups. Furthermore, the flaws and generational situation of their opponents and the consequential effect has to be taken into account (exemplified best by South Korea toppling a regressing Germany). It is fair to even potentially play down Japan’s progression to the Round of 16 due to accruing fewer yellow cards than Senegal, but as a whole, teams from Asia fared far better in 2018 than in 2014 where they accumulated a total three points out of a possible 36 between four teams in the group stage (Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia). By contrast in 2018 Asian teams secured 15 from of a potential 45 points, an 18% increase in points amassed.

Furthermore, viewing the Russia 2018 results through the context of where these teams are at ahead of Qatar 2022 is arguably ignoring the impact of the changes that have been made since. Of the six teams to have qualified only one side have retained the same coach across qualification campaigns, this being the tournament hosts Qatar, who have kept Félix Sánchez ever since his taking over the side when they were last in their qualifying group for Russia 2018 and who went on to win the 2019 Asian Cup on home soil.

The current ‘big six’ of Asia have qualified for the tournament, and perhaps it is just reward for Asian football’s increased investment into the sport over the past few decades. In saying that, a set of countries’ ambitious development efforts does not necessarily reflect a whole region’s shared emphasis. For some nations, the development, alignment and tailoring of resources serves as a challenge they’re unwilling to take – irrespective of the passionate and parochial fan base of some club teams. When one looks at Indonesian side Persib Bandung’s nearly 20 million total followers across social media platforms and impressive crowd numbers matching the likes of mammoth Iranian sides like Tractor S.C, it feels like more could be done to improve Indonesia’s international standing as a footballing nation.

AFC

In terms of the development of top-tier players in domestic Asian leagues, the infrastructural foundations need to be laid outside of the likes of South Korea and especially Japan, where for example J-League sides select youth players from age 11, a factor which has hugely contributed to their consistent youth production line.

Often the determinative factor of a region’s influence on football is the number of names plying their trade in top-level overseas – mainly European leagues. And by this measurement, Asian football is at an all-time high with representatives from across the continent making a name for themselves at the top level of the game. When considering that 92% of the teams that reached the quarter-finals in the last three editions of the FIFA World Cup were from Europe and South America, it will be interesting to see if an Asian team pushes beyond the Round of 16 with the greater base of players based in Europe especially.

From the 2026 World Cup onwards, an increase from four to eight direct slots alongside an extra spot via the intercontinental playoffs affords Asian teams a greater chance to shine on the world stage. It is more likely than that the jointly hosted 2026 edition will provide greater evidence of Asia’s elevated levels of competitiveness when facing far better developed footballing nations.

The reality is we simply do not know how the Asian confederation’s representatives will fare until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar plays out. But nonetheless, the strides being taken by sections of the AFC region to improve their infrastructure and to foster a distinct identity will have massive long-term benefits in a manner quite possibly akin to Japan in terms of youth development. Time, as always, will tell.

PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill on the discussions leading up to Collective Bargaining Agreement

Kathryn Gill

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Football Australia and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) was recently formed for 2023-2027, bolstering the future for the Socceroos and Matildas.

The CBA will put a number of key changes and initiatives in place – namely payments, commercial partnerships, gender equality, work-life balance and life after football.

As a former Matildas captain, PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill has been the perfect role model for those rising up through the ranks, and also in her leadership to turn this CBA into reality.

She spoke with Soccerscene to outline the key milestones achieved for the new CBA and what we can look forward to over the four-year duration.

The path towards the 50:50 payments and the key conversations that made it happen:

Kathryn Gill: Women’s football has undergone a global explosion over the past four to five years. When we signed the previous collective bargaining agreement in 2019, the women’s game was threatening to reach new heights, and our gender equal model reflected that trend.

In 2023, we needed the new agreement to reflect this new reality, and most players were comfortable moving away from a centralised contract structure to a meritocratic payment model, mirroring the Socceroos’ match payments.

Players provided direct feedback in player meetings, steering committee meetings, and in the negotiations with FA to share their views.

The outcome was that the players now have a payment model that incentivises performances, creates competitive tension within the team, and is a fit-for-purpose gender-equal payment structure in line with the Socceroos.

There is still work to do to increase player salaries in club football, but we are hopeful that it will continue to grow in line with global trends.

How revenues will benefit the Australian football community with programs for current and former players:

Kathryn Gill: Under the CBA, a percentage of the players’ share of revenue is redirected into player development support programs and services, which are vital to the ongoing support of players and ensure that football remains a sport of choice for Australian athletes. That money is to support the current national team players. However, for the first time, the CBA guarantees investment in our past players via legacy funding from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

That funding will ensure our players can stay in their careers longer, help them to prepare for life after football, and enable the PFA and FA to invest in areas that will allow us to support our retired and former professional players better.

The importance of giving back towards the PFA Footballers’ Trust:

Kathryn Gill: Players are deeply passionate about many issues within football and society, from reducing the cost of football to climate change and human rights. Their aim is to make the Footballers’ Trust the most impactful sports charity in Australia. The CBA is a great vehicle to foster the players’ commitment by building a deeper level of impact on many existing and new initiatives across the next four years of the agreement.

There were 40 players in the negotiation process, was there anyone in particular that stood out in discussions?

Kathryn Gill: The CBA is the players’ agreement, so as many players as possible in and around the national teams provided their input into their deal.

The players were constantly at the table and in the negotiations, even though many had to join from overseas at various hours of the morning or evening.

Our Executive Committee Members in particular – Andrew Redmayne, Lydia Williams, Tameka Yallop, Elise Kellond-Knight, Jackson Irvine and Mat Ryan – were deeply involved given their representative roles with the union.

Noddy: The Untold Story of Adrian Alston – a review of Philip Micallef’s book

When former Socceroo great, Adrian Alston, took a leap of faith and departed Preston in the north of England and ventured to Wollongong in January 1968, he could never have imagined how his life would change forever.

However, Jim Kelly, the former Blackpool and England B international, who had played with the late and great Sir Stanley Matthews, knew his man and was instrumental in the new life Alston forged for him and his family.

Kelly had become part of football folklore on the South Coast after South Coast United defeated favourites Apia Leichhardt 4-0 in the 1963 NSW Federation Grand Final in front of an Australian record club crowd of 30,500.

Consequently, when Kelly brought his prodigy to the South Coast of NSW, he unknowingly created a football pathway for Alston which he still reflects on with immense pride and gratitude.

There is a constant message in the book, written by Philip Micallef, that Alston never forgot the people who assisted him in rising to the highest level of football, fulfilled by playing all over the globe and representing his chosen country in 37 full internationals, including the World Cup Finals of 1974 in Germany.

When Alston was selected in his first international against Greece in 1969, he stated he was no longer a Pommie – but green and gold through and through.

Critically, he knew that Australia was now the place he would always call home and after travelling the world with the Socceroos, playing in the 1974 World Cup Finals  in Germany and  in the English 1st Division with Luton Town, rubbing shoulders with the greats of world football including Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Rodney Marsh, George Best and Johan Cruyff in the North American Soccer League before a serious injury forced him to retire from playing at the tender age of thirty, this fact became more evident.

Ironically, when he returned to England after his playing career finished, Alston really couldn’t settle down  and when his young son, Adrian junior, asked when the family was returning to Australia, it was enough to influence Alston and his family to jet back to Wollongong.

Life after football can be very challenging for some but Alston took to coaching like a duck to water and the book documents in detail his coaching stints in the Illawarra during the 1980’s and 1990’s where he achieved considerable success.

However, his greatest loyalty was to the 1974 Socceroo squad and the last chapter of the book is devoted to his coach, the late Rale Rasic.

This book is just not about the footballer, Noddy Alston, but the man who took a chance in life to explore new surroundings when he came to Australia to begin the voyage of a lifetime.

There are a number of subplots in the book which make fascinating reading like Noddy’s procurement of Franz Beckenbauer’s shirt before the Socceroo’s World Cup match against West Germany in 1974.

The book will not only appeal  to people who followed Noddy’s career closely but to supporters of the game who admire determination and God given ability in professional footballers.

For those who don’t know Noddy’s story, particularly the younger generation and those who are the standard bearers of our game, it’s a must read.

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