A gulf in class

Alan Tomlinson and John Sugden report on how the 1996 Asian Nations Cup Finals proved to be a massive disappointment to the hosts of the next World Cup but one

The 1996 Asian Nations Cup Finals in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) saw the home side go one better than England in Euro 96, reaching the tournament final after a penalty shoot-out. In the final, in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City, neighbours UAE and Saudi Arabia sparred their way to a goalless two hours, and into a penalty shoot-out. The Saudis came out on top, with four penalties to the Emirates’ two, reasserting their recent domination of this tournament – they were winners in 1984 and 1988, and losing finalists in 1992.

But the real story of Asia ‘96 was of the toothless tigers of the Far East, whose trips West led to such disappointing performances. All four semi-finalists – Kuwait and Iran being the other two – were from the Gulf. Korea, leading Iran 2-1 in the quarter-finals, were blitzed in the second half, succumbing 6-2. Japan, reigning champions from four years earlier, played precise and powerful five-a-side football, but lacked creativity in midfield, confidence in front of goal, and discipline in defence. China sped to a two-goal lead against Saudi Arabia, but spilled goals alarmingly and carelessly to go down 4-2.

As the players headed for home, their administrators suffered a humiliating defeat on the morning of the final. Spearheaded by Arab politics and ruthless abandonment of the agreed principles of hosting bids (rotation was an unwritten but widely publicized rule when UAE beat Korea for these Games), voting went 14-2 against China, and Asian Cup 2,000 will stay in the Middle East, in the Lebanon. There was much debate on what had happened to the Japanese, Korean and Chinese teams. New professional leagues had only just come to the end of their season, so draining the Koreans and the Japanese, some said; what about England and Germany in the Summer, others countered. Coaches, press and administrators traded explanations, whilst in the coffee-shops, bars and hotel suites, the debate centred on what it meant that two teams which could not even get to the semi-finals of the Asian Cup were the co-hosts of the next World Cup but one.

2,002 has been the most fiercely contested bidding process in the history of the World Cup, yet have the soccer bubbles burst in those two ambitious Asian countries? The widely expressed opinion was that it has peaked in Japan – the J-League’s little more than an NASL of the Nineties, everybody agreed. The biggest international press agency – Agence France Presse – created the biggest off-field storm during the last week of the tournament, publicizing a forthcoming report by a FIFA-appointed technical analyst, which opined that Asian footballing standards are in decline. Asian insiders took not at all charitably to this comment, flying in FIFA’s Media Director to trouble-shoot, and some national delegations alleging that such an opinion was nothing less than a racist insult, designed to do its worst for the future of Asian football.

    But behind the scenes it wasn’t just the western outsiders who were raising such questions. A top figure in the Korean Football Association agreed that the team’s performance had been poor and noted that there was no instant explanation for this, either from his own perspective or that of the Korean media; a top football official from South-east Asia agreed that standards were falling: “I see it with my own eyes … I was a player. You tell me, who are the young stars here?” This was a good question. But for the impressive Iranian forward Ali Daei (who at 27 is far from young), who bagged four against Korea, few names stuck; and memories of leaky defences persisted.

So where does football stand currently among more than half of the world’s population? The big guns of the Far East, the toothless tigers of December 1996, with their limitless resources, are certainly on a different plane to the societies of South-east Asia, such as India and Pakistan, who have massive potential but only limited resources.

You can see why some Gulf countries can get so far: the UAE and Saudi Arabia are two of the three richest nations on earth. And in neither of those countries do top players go short. They score a winner in a big match, and then get one of the costliest wristwatches in the world as a statement of national gratitude. But neither can they leave the country, step out of line of strict Islam custom and law without severe penalty, or express any personal opinion.

At post-match press conferences, these players will express their delight at Sheikh Zayed’s recovery from illness, or thank Allah for the divine inspiration which allowed them to clinch the result. But we know nothing about them, about their origins and their aspirations. And in a culture of fear it’s not surprising that you find a football of fear, in which pass-the-buck safety-first football predominates, and risk-takers are frowned upon.

Behind the glossy brochures for Asian Cup ‘96 lay a fascinating home truth. It’s not unusual for big sports events to be up against rival events and profiles: in Manhattan during the 1994 World Cup Finals, posters for the Gay Games dominated over posters for the football tournament. But in Abu Dhabi in 1996 there were no posters on the streets, no billboards by the roadsides, celebrating this four-yearly event. There were posters of Sheikh Zayed astride his magnificent white steed, and with his pet falcon.

And ‘96 was not the prevailing number on display. That honour went to 30 – the number of years since the accession of Sheikh Zayed to the rulership of Abu Dhabi; and to 25 – the number of years since the formation of the UAE itself, since which time Sheikh Zayed has been the elected President of the Union.

Contrary to the propaganda – much of it emanating from Fifa House in Zurich – proclaiming that the East deserves the 2,002 World Cup (and, with co-hosting, could have 5 of the 32 places for the Finals) because domestic football there is catching up with Europe and South America, if UAE ‘96 is anything to go by the lack of a deep-rooted tradition in the game seems to suggest that the region is destined to remain in the lower divisions of international football.

Yet, when it comes to the power politics within FIFA Asia, like Africa, is disproportionately influential. No doubt the UEFA president Lennart Johansson reflected on these matters as he sat in Zaved Sport City alongside Dr Mong Joon Chung from South Korea and Mr Abdullah Al-Dabal from Saudi Arabia watching relative mediocrity. He may have been thinking that if the control of world football does not return to Europe through the election of a European (him) to the FIFA Presidency in 1998, perhaps it will be the time for the Europeans to pick up the ball – which through history and money they believe to be theirs anyway – and take it home, leaving the rest of the world to play with themselves.

Dr John Sugden and Professor Alan Tomlinson are in the Sport and Leisure Cultures Research Group at the Chelsea School Research Centre, The University of Brighton. They are currently working on a book on FIFA and the development of world football, to be published by Polity Press in 1998.

From WSC 120 February 1997. What was happening this month