So with Japan’s and South Korea’s losses to the Guays (Japan to Para-, South Korea to Uru-), the Asians are out of the World Cup. Frankly, few expected the South Koreans and Japanese to get to the round of 16 in the first place. As continents go, Asia is a football bummer. (Compare it to South America, which has four teams heading into the quarters.) Still, it got me thinking about why the world’s most populous continent hasn’t done better, given how avid its football fans are. Three random thoughts:
- Unlike in Africa, Latin America and even parts of the U.S., sports is not seen in Asia as a glorious way out of poverty. Sure, there’s the occasional Manny Pacquiao who boxes his way to national respect—and, most recently, to a seat in the Philippine Congress. But generally speaking, little Asian kids don’t think: I can get out of this slum by dribbling a black-and-white ball or dunking an orange one or batting a red-and-white one. That doesn’t mean Asians aren’t good at sports: the Indonesians excel in badminton; the Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans in cricket; the Japanese and Taiwanese in baseball. But when sports isn’t widely regarded as a ticket out of a favela, grassroots development of a sport like soccer suffers.
- The sports giant in the neighborhood is China. When Beijing hosted the Olympics, China won the most gold medals of any nation. An amazing feat for a country that had only re-joined the Olympic movement a generation ago. But that success was the result of a state-sponsored athletic program that focused strategically on sports that a) require flawless routines and b) don’t involve spontaneous interaction with other athletes. That means disciplines like gymnastics, diving, weight-lifting and shooting. In general, ball sports were neglected by the Chinese sporting authorities because they’re a bigger deal elsewhere in the world and it would be harder for the Chinese to get up to snuff quickly. (There are two exceptions to this: one is table tennis, but the inordinate focus on ping-pong is because of a diplomatic peculiarity in which the International Table Tennis Federation was one of the first international bodies to recognize Beijing over political rival Taiwan, so the Chinese figured it would be an apt sport in which to channel their energies. The other anomaly is women’s ball sports, which were promoted by the Chinese sports czars partly because there was a feeling that other countries weren’t as focused on the girls as the boys and therefore pouring resources into the women’s game would garner quick results. It worked. The Chinese women were quarterfinalists in the past two FIFA World Cups.) All in all, China and soccer is a losing combination. The men’s team has only qualified for the World Cup once, and its domestic soccer league is one of the world’s most shambolic.
- Football is young in Asia. Sure, the Chinese claim to have invented a soccer-like game nearly five millennia ago, but it’s only relatively recently that Thais have stayed up all night watching Premier League matches or the Japanese soccer league has reached maturity. Give the continent some time, and it may surprise us all.