The traditional Asian powerhouses may have disappointed at the World Cup, but the knock-on effects could yet be positive for January's continental showpiece in Australia
A promotional campaign from an anti-betting organisation in Singapore seemed to have scored an own goal when choosing eventual World Cup winners Germany as an example of a failed bet. The advert was later tinkered with to maintain its relevance in the wake of Die Mannschaft’s success, an effort to save face in what could have easily have turned out to be a car-crash.
It’s tempting to draw parallels with the Asian teams who failed so spectacularly in Brazil. As far as adverts go, the World Cup wasn’t the best for the Asian Cup. Highlights would struggle to fill a 30-second commercial - three points from 12 games is not much to write a tome about and when the continent’s best perform so poorly, the arrival of the rest may struggle to get juices flowing. The situation is not yet lost however. Asia’s failure in South America may make Australia 2015 a harder sell but also makes the tournament more interesting and meaningful.
Holding the Asian Cup so soon after the World Cup was always going to have consequences. Japan and South Korea, the two star attractions - after Australia, who did enough to provide some optimism - doing so badly doesn’t help to build excitement. It’s not all doom and gloom though. For the East Asian giants, the tournament is looming larger than it ever has and that is good news for the Asian Football Confederation. For the rest, what happened in Brazil should give confidence that the big boys can be beaten. It should be fun.
Despite June's disappointment, defending champions Japan are not in a terrible place. Results and performances have hit fans hard and heavily discounted Samurai Blue-related merchandise is languishing in stores but the four years of Alberto Zaccheroni were not wasted even if the Italian flunked his biggest test. Japan need some new blood to freshen the ranks and a savvier coach to bring more flexibility and a winning mentality. Overall though, the foundation is there. Australia is the perfect opportunity for the new man - Javier Aguirre should be announced shortly - to make his mark.
Korean football is usually more volatile than their neighbour, certainly at the moment. The coach and the vice-president of the Korean FA have resigned and there is pressure on the disliked head of the technical committee to do the same. Some of the players who performed, or perhaps more accurately, didn’t perform in Brazil are not very popular with many fans, angry at underachievement and a perceived ‘football mafia’ in charge of the game.
The 2015 Asian Cup has been discussed like no other. Korea has not won the trophy since 1960. For a number of years, the country was far more interested in the Olympics (which, unlike the Asian Cup, offered players the chance to win military exemption) than the continental competition, something that contributed to the AFC moving their showpiece out of the summer Olympics cycle. Now, with the standing of the national team at its lowest point since sometime in the previous millennium, triumph in Australia is the best way back into the public’s affection.
The failure in Brazil may help in other ways. The possibility of some bigger stars in the bigger leagues of Europe developing ‘niggling injuries’ instead of heading on that mammoth trek down under to miss six weeks or more of the domestic season, has receded a little. European club coaches have grown accustomed to African players leaving mid-winter but the same has yet to sink in regarding their Asian personnel. The tournament in 2011 didn’t help; Shinji Kagawa broke his foot and Park Ji-sung returned to Manchester United with niggles that kept him out for weeks. Despite that, the big names should be keen. As well as the restoration of pride, some of them are playing for their places with calls for new blood still ringing around.
Even with committed teams and big names, there will still be still challenges for organisers when trying to fill stadiums next January. World Cup post-mortems have focused, rightly, on the need for the whole of Asia to improve in order to give its best teams the platform from which to compete with the world. A few signs in that direction would be welcome. The sight of Korea and Japan struggling in Brazil then strolling in Australia is not what the continent needs in January, nor what those countries want in the long-term. It is time for young and exciting contenders like Iraq and UAE to fulfill their considerable potential.
Some sort of challenge from the west is inevitable as 10 of the 16 participants hail from that corner of the continent. Such an imbalance does present promotional problems. There is passion and ability inside the region but outside, little is known about Iraq, UAE and Saudi Arabia. When it comes to Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, it’s even less. The Asian football disconnect between west and east has long been an issue and it is not one that can be solved in Australia.
Organisers don’t always help themselves though and the 84,000 Stadium Australia is going to take some filling for certain, less than glamorous ties. I watched Qatar host Bahrain in a November 2011 World Cup qualifier at Al Sadd’s 18,000 capacity stadium in Doha. It was half-full.
Reaching the same percentage of occupied seats in Sydney on January 19 would require selling 42,000 tickets –managing that would be a greater achievement than the Socceroos getting out of its World Cup group. Unless North Korea sends the same army of headline-grabbing young female cheerleaders to Sydney in January that is heading to the South Korean city of Incheon in September for the Asian Games, the clash with Uzbekistan at the same mammoth arena may have more than a few empty seats. Historically, the tournament usually struggles to attract consistently high attendances but perhaps a little tinkering with venues and teams would have been prudent, with China and Japan much more capable of coming close to filling such a massive stadium.
The World Cup may have tarnished ‘Asia’s football brand’ somewhat and it may make the continent’s flagship tournament a harder sell to potential customers in and outside Australia but it also means that the tournament is set to be the most keenly contested one yet. The big teams and the big stars are desperate for redemption while those not involved in Brazil are desperate for success. It is the most important Asian Cup ever. Perhaps the ad men in Singapore can turn that into a promotional campaign to wow the masses.