The World Cup’s biggest lesson for Asia
Much was made of the fact that Croatia’s fairytale run to the World Cup final came from a population of barely four million people but what was often missed is that their squad is littered with players at leading clubs and leagues across Europe.
For such a small pool of resources there’s no question it was a remarkable achievement, but when your starting XI consists of players at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Liverpool and others it’s hardly a pub team.
It was a similar story at other smaller nations, population-wise, that performed well at the tournament with Belgium and Uruguay having squads filled with players that turn out for big clubs and even tiny Iceland has more than half a dozen players at the top level in England, Germany and France.
The lesson in this for Asia is – and has for the longest time – been blindingly clear and that’s the need to get as many talented young players as possible across to clubs where they can train and play at the highest level.
Naturally this can only be achieved if there are players being produced of sufficient quality in the first place. For the bulk of the AFC’s 47 member nations that in fact remains the primary concern – the dream of seeing a Nepali, or a Tajik or a Singaporean at a major European club in our lifetime is just that, a dream.
Those nations, and dozens beside them have a huge task ahead of them in overcoming cultural, economic, organisational and infrastructure issues to start creating the kind of technicians that are the bedrock of any successful football nation, but for the leading AFC nations it’s a different story.
Go the streets of Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and others and it’s immediately clear that the raw technical tools are present in these nations.
What’s needed for many is a harnessing of those qualities in a professional environment allied with the correct coaching that allows them to marry technique with the tactical and physical requirements to elevate the natural gifts.
At the very highest level in Asia though, what’s needed is simply a chance.
Japan produces some of the most technically gifted young players – in my opinion of having watched this first hand for a decade – anywhere in the world.
What a brilliant World Cup... I still think the Belgium Japan match was one of the best football matches I’ve seen.
— Stanley Chow (@stan_chow) July 15, 2018
The J.League is overflowing with outstanding technical players and even though there has been a steady flow in recent years to Europe the argument can easily be made that for the national team to continue to flourish those numbers must continue to increase.
Indeed, that was the argument made by the players themselves after their heartbreaking exit at the hands of Belgium in the Round of 16.
Keisuke Honda has long been seen as the modern incarnation of one of Asia’s all-time greats in Hidetoshi Nakata as much for his actions off the pitch as on it and a trait that both have in common is that when they speak it’s well reasoned and timed.
That was certainly the case at a moment where Honda could’ve chosen not to speak at all – as many of his teammates did – in the immediate aftermath of that Belgium loss, even more so given it’s widely expected to be his farewell to the national team.
Rather than making the moment about himself though he chose to spin the narrative to the future of the national team, and as he told me in the bowels of the Rostov-on-Don Arena that must start with more young Japanese players making their way to Europe.
“With the way that we played against Belgium and at this World Cup, we gave the European clubs a message that they should bring more Japanese players, not just national players, but others to their clubs and I hope that after this World Cup they’ll take a lot of new Japanese talents.”
“In Japan, we’ve learned a lot from Spanish football and like them we don’t have physical traits, but we have technique so as you see we have good midfielders and the Japanese league also has a lot of players with these qualities so they can easily play in Spain or Germany or other teams where they want to keep the ball.”
In the performances of Takashi Inui, Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Osako, Shinji Kagawa and others that play in those very leagues the benefits of honing their craft at the highest level is evident, and indeed of the XI that started the Belgium match only one player – defender Gen Shoji – plays domestically.
— MAYA YOSHIDA (@MayaYoshida3) July 4, 2018
One of only two players based in the English Premier League was also quick to back up Honda’s words with defender Maya Yoshida telling FOX Sports Asia that the experience of being in one of the planet’s toughest competitions is what’s driven his game to the next level, and it’s essential that others follow that path both from Japan and other leading AFC nations.
“Four years ago after Brazil I said the same thing that more players need to go to Europe and get experience playing against these kind of players and then that experience helps us to improve Japanese football.
“It’s difficult to accept to finish the tournament as we did – and we showed throughout the World Cup a great impact to the world starting with beating Colombia and the game against Belgium, but we need to be more stronger mentally and physically and we need to manage the game with these elements and that’s the experience that you can get from playing and training with the best.”