Arguing continues between the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA over the number of World Cup spots for Asian teams. Justin McCurry gives us the lowdown

When the Asian Football Confederation decided at the end of last year to boycott the 2002 World Cup if it was not granted an extra place in the qualifying rounds, there were few inklings of the bitter feud that was to develop among the most senior members of the FIFA family. With just three months left before the draw for the qualifying rounds, the prospect of FIFA and its Asian siblings kissing and making up still looks some way off.

The AFC, you will remember, is demanding a total of five, rather than the current four, places at the 2002 tournament. With Japan and South Korea having qual­ified as hosts, the confederation’s remaining 43 mem­bers will have to battle it out for just two places.

FIFA looked to have headed off a boycott at its very Extraordinary Congress in Los Angeles in July, when UEFA agreed to go into a play-off with the third-placed Asian team. At the time UEFA president Lennart Jo­hansson said: “We thought, ‘How would we feel if we were in Asia’s position? Let’s play a match and see who’s best’.” His apparently generous tone confirmed what the AFC already knew; that a play-off against a decent European team was hardly an improvement on the four places it already had.

Several days later, the entire Asian delegation walk­ed out of the congress in protest. It was then that a furious Blatter first uttered the football family analogy that would be repeated ad nauseam in the weeks to come. “When you’re in a family, you do not leave the table before dinner is served,” he said. But the Asian contingent clearly did not like the look of what was being served up, and repeated their demand for more than mere scraps from the UEFA table.

It wasn’t long before the increasingly excitable, sanctimonious South American contingent fanned the flames of fraternal discord, with one unnamed delegate saying their federation, Conmebol, would give up the additional half a place requested by Asia “over our dead bodies”. Its president, Nicolas Le­oz, even suggested de­p­riving Japan and South Korea of the 2002 tour­nament and giving it to Germany or England in­stead, adding to the fury in AFC circles at the prospect of half of Conmebol’s ten members making it to the finals.

Speculating over how much closer negotiations have brought the two sides has proved a pointless exercise. One thing is clear: the focus of FIFA’s negotiating strategy has shifted from the AFC as a whole to the more malleable representatives of the individual associations. After all, it is they who will be voting on the future of the boycott at an AFC Extraordinary Con­gress in Kuala Lumpur on October 10th.

Softening his divide and rule policy with mawkish references to family ideals could prove to be an astute move on Blatter’s part, given that the AFC’s veneer of unity is showing signs of peeling away. China’s Lao­dong Daily recently quoted Zhang Jilong, vice-chairman of the Chinese Football Association, as say­ing that it would be unsuitable to “impatiently take a stand or state a position”. And the Malaysian Football Association, led by AFC president Sultan Ahmad Shah, has already distanced itself from the boycott. It is significant that Blatter is to meet Shah, an AFC “wet”, prior to a FIFA executive committee meeting in Las Vegas on October 1st and 2nd, where the governing body will decide its final offer. The poor co-hosts, meanwhile, are desperately trying to reconcile loyalty to the AFC with a desire not to let the boycott cast a pall over preparations for their big day.

In the meantime, Asian officials would do well to ponder the meaning behind the thinly veiled threats contained in Blatter’s hom­ily to his increasing­ly dysfunctional foot­ball family. In an article in the August edition of FIFA News, he said, “His­tory has shown that boy­cotts in sports are not the ideal way to solve problems since they inevitably spark off equally damaging countermeasures.”

The tale took a further twist at the end of last month when the idea was mooted of allowing Asia to play off against Oceania, leaving the fifth South American team to meet a European representative. UEFA has made encouraging noises, though Conmebol has made no response. If the idea ever gets off the ground, it probably represents the best that Asia can hope for.

If, on the other hand, principle prevails over prag­matism, and Asian officials decide to reject the pro­posal, AFC members will have to decide whether to turn their back on the boycott and risk splitting their parent body asunder, or to throw their weight behind the cause of Asian unity and find themselves locked out of the FIFA House of Football.

From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month

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