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Rise of Asian power in soccer? Yes. But sans India


Saudi Arabia, Japan, and now Iran have chalked up important wins in the initial phase of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in the first faint hopes that Asian soccer is rising up to world/ western standards. Too early to make that call but the signs are promising. We will know if a couple of teams make it to the knockout stage: hold your breath for USA v Iran. If Iran wins, they could be in with a chance, particularly if England beats it former colony later today.

No Asian team has ever won the world cup. The best ever Asian performance was South Korea’s fourth place finish in 2002. For that matter, no African team has lifted the trophy either although several have reached the quarter-final stage. The most storied progress was Cameroon in 1990. Older fans would remember their sparkling forward Roger Milla, who at 38 years old took the world by storm with his four goals and his little dance by the corner flag.

European teams have dominated the FIFA World Cup, winning it eleven times Germany (4), Italy (4), Spain (1), France(1), England (1) sharing the honors. South America has taken it home nine times, with Brazil (5), Argentina (2), and Uruguay (2) taking it home.

One broad explanation for the domination of western teams is their sheer physicality, although there is little empirical evidence for this. An enduring football tradition and culture that produces a vast pool and financial support, combined with modern, scientific training methods goes a long way in producing champion teams. Although soccer is way behind American “football”, basketball, and baseball in terms of popularity in the US, the American team is now ranked 16th in the world making steady progress over the past couple of decades.

Remarkably, one of the key figures in the rise of US soccer is Allahabad-born Indian-American Sunil Gulati, who was at the helm of the US football federation from 2006 to 2018 before he was termed-limited. In a 2016 interview with this writer Gulati said he started playing soccer as a youngster in Connecticut and then got involved in refereeing and coaching before finally switch to the administrative side of things. Gulati is also a senior lecturer in the economics department of Columbia University. In fact, Gulati’s class in sports economics is often said to be heavily oversubscribed, with students camping out overnight to secure a place in his course. Who said academics and sports can’t go together?

The biggest underachiever in world soccer is of course India, which languishes somewhere beyond 100 in world soccer rankings. India’s biggest moment of humiliation came in 2015 when its national team lost to Guam, occasioning this updated post from your writer:

There’s this delightful story about soccer fans in Kerala, India, supporting Argentina and Brazil respectively, duking it out on the streets. Their passion for foreign teams is fervent enough for them to roll up their mundus and bash the other party. I’m wondering how many threw themselves before oncoming trains or leapt off high-rises after Argentina’s defeat today. All this brouhaha reminds me of something I wrote here a few years ago about India’s soccer prowess.
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Many years ago, I took a visitor from Denmark to a Stafford Cup football game in Bangalore…I’m talking say the early 1980s. A few minutes into the game, my friend started laughing uproariously. It turned out that he had never seen such a dismal game of soccer in his life (and the game as I recall was between two top clubs in India). Indeed, back in those days, second and third division teams from abroad would visit India and routinely beat our national team. And “foreign” players, from middling football powers such as Nigeria and Iran, were celebrities (I remember guys named Chima Okerie and Jamshid Nassiri who both played in the Indian League ).
I tuned out of Indian football soon after, and in the hiatus of many years since, I’d occasionally hear the names of Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chettri etc who were apparently of a higher standard. During World Cup football, which all of India stays up to watch despite us not qualifying, one often heard of how things had improved and we were inching up the world rankings. And the kind of craze and TV coverage of European soccer and English Premier League definitely gave the impression that if not world beaters, we were definitely a decent Asian team now.
And then we go and lose to Guam.
Guam.
GUAM!
Go on…try finding Guam on the map. Hint: It is a speck in the Pacific.
Hell, Eden Gardens can cram in all of Guam’s population — 159,358 in 2010 census.
Bank of Baroda’s market cap is greater than Guam’s GDP.
Ambanis and Adanis can buy the island as a birthday present for their kids
It’s a kind of place where a coconut falling on a passing car makes headline news
Seriously.
Just for a lark, I looked up the local newspaper website thinking Guam beating India would be the lead story. I mean imagine a country of 150,000 beating a country of 1.5 billion (ok, we are getting there) in anything.
Nope. Nada. Nothing. The lead story was “Man Robbed With Stick At Cella Bay Outlook”
Apparently, they have never heard of India. Aspiring superpower. Leading space and nuclear science country. Inventors of zero and yoga
Weep.
But there is hope.
We may yet beat Tonga, Kiribati, and Nauru. All smaller than Guam.
Let’s keep our chin up and pretend this never happened.
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In the meantime, we can beat each other up supporting Brazil and Argentina.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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