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   June 11, 2002 | 1055 IST


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Asian soccer on the march

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The prospect of an Asian World Cup winner remains as distant as ever but impressive showings by joint hosts South Korea and Japan in the 2002 tournament have given Asian soccer an enormous fillip.

South Korea had played 14 games in five previous World Cups without winning once before ending the streak with their memorable 2-0 victory over Poland last week.

Japan's only previous finals appearance came four years ago when they lost all three games and looked out of their depth.

But, like their co-hosts, they have already picked up four points from their opening two matches of the current tournament.

China are further down the soccer learning curve and their lack of big tournament experience showed in their 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica and 4-0 loss to Brazil. Two games into their World Cup debut they are already eliminated.

But the progress of the host nations shows that with willing players, good coaching, regular exposure to top quality opposition and the support of a strong federation, Asian countries can stand comparison with all but the very best.

The wonderful support from both countries' fans has buttressed the teams' morale and raised the profile of the tournament so that few television viewers in Asia can be unaware of the World Cup.

However, there is much more to the two teams' improvement than 50,000 screaming voices of support in the stadium, and millions outside, even if soccer-mania guarantees the game will continue to attract big sponsorship bucks.

A lot is down to two coaches with the necessary experience to mould a team and convince them they can succeed.

Japan responded to their 1998 disappointment by appointing Philippe Troussier as coach, a man with a proven record of knocking talented but disorganised African nations into shape.

It took a while for the Frenchman to have an impact but in the past 18 months Japan seem to have turned the corner.

He has introduced a stiff training regime to toughen up the players and convinced them that they needed to aspire to be more than just the biggest fish in Asia.

The result has been startlingly obvious with their mature, confident displays to draw 2-2 with Belgium and beat Russia 1-0.

South Korea took a little longer to go down the foreign coach road and consequently gave former Netherlands boss Guus Hiddink only 18 months to turn their national team into one who could mount a credible challenge in the World Cup.

He has succeeded spectacularly and the team that ripped through Poland and drew with the US bear no comparison with that thumped 5-0 by both France and the Czech Republic a little over a year ago.


Always neat, quick and skilful, both teams have added organisation, attitude and a little steel to their game and now truly do not fear anyone.

"The players have come from almost nowhere and are so fresh and ambitious to learn that it has been a delight to work with them," said Hiddink this week.

The real test of any progress, however, will come over the next four years.

Can the new attitudes that Troussier, who steps down after the World Cup, and Hiddink have instilled be spread to the next generation of players?

Can the domestic leagues of the two countries continue to raise their standards and attract youngsters into the game?

Can the Asian stars fight their way out of the reserve teams of their clubs in the major European leagues and start to get regular experience in competitions such as the Champions League?

Can China, with its huge resources of talent, develop the right structure to its game and unleash its huge potential?


The 2006 finals in Germany could feature five Asian teams and Peter Velappan, head of the Asian soccer confederation, is certain China will not only be amongst them but will go on to become a major force in the sport.

"In the next 10 years, we should expect China will be in the top 10 (in the world)," said Velappan. "There is no reason why not."

China coach Bora Milutinovic, who having taken five different teams to the finals knows a thing or two about the world game, thinks Velappan is being over-optimistic.

"It's a good wish to have but if we can stay in the top 32, that's already a great thing," he said.

Velappan has proposed introducing an Asian league, featuring six teams from China, Japan and South Korea, after the 2006 World Cup to help improve playing standards and make the continent's players less "soft".

Twelve years ago, when Cameroon became the first African nation to reach the quarter-finals, Pele made the bold prediction that an African country would win the World Cup by the end of the century.

Two further tournaments, however, failed to produce even another quarter-finalist and the African charge appears to have slowed.

It is important for the continued development of the game that Asia, riding high on the current wave of optimism, takes up the baton.

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