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.
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.
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.
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