Bouncing back
© AFP

The celebration of football which was beamed from South Africa to the world earlier this year made for less cheerful viewing than normal in Western Asia. While the region’s legendary passion for the game ensured that the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ was still followed avidly here, there was no escaping the soul-searching, head-scratching, finger-pointing and general mystification as to the failure of the local teams to secure even a single berth at the tournament.

It was the first time since 1974 that Western Asia found itself shut off from the world’s most popular sporting event. In an uninterrupted run from 1978 to 2006, the region had been represented at the FIFA World Cup by five different nations, with Iran and Saudi Arabia comfortably leading the way. Between them, the two nations have qualified seven times for the tournament – with the Saudis enjoying their own impressive unbroken run from USA 1994 through to Germany 2006. Both countries were widely expected to qualify for the 2010 edition, with fans of the three other previous FIFA World Cup qualifiers (Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates) also keeping their fingers crossed for their respective national teams.

Instead, all five missed out. Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE did make it as far as the final qualifying round but finished outside the automatic qualifying places after being topped by East Asian rivals Korea Republic and Korea DPR. The Saudis were then seen as favourites in the fifth place play-off against their tiny neighbours from Bahrain, but narrowly lost the two-legged encounter on the away goals rule. Unexpectedly carrying the expectations of the entire region, Bahrain were in turn defeated 1-0 by Oceania champions New Zealand, a result which guaranteed a West Asian no-show in South Africa.

“The lack of West Asian teams at the 2010 FIFA World Cup was certainly not due to any lack of great players or any lessening of our love for the game,” insists Afshin Ghotbi, who was appointed head coach of Iran’s national team late in the qualifiers as the country made a last-ditch effort to salvage their campaign. “It is more about a lack of discipline and organisation, both on and off the field.

“I believe that is the biggest challenge that our region faces when it comes to being successful in international football in the future, and it is what I am trying to address when it comes to the Iranian team. Everybody talks about the great history of Iranian football, but if you look more closely that success was mostly confined to Asian competition, and most of it happened 30 years ago.

“In the last 30 years, Iran has qualified just three times for the FIFA World Cup and at the tournament itself we have won just a single match (their famous 2-1 group-stage win over USA in 1998). My feeling is that the true greatness of Iranian football now lies in its potential. To make that a reality, when faced with the demands of modern football, you need organisation, you need teams who can defend and play well without the ball, and you need tactical discipline within the team.”

Back on track?
Having remained in his position at the helm of the Iran team, Ghotbi was able to put those beliefs into practice as nine of the region’s teams regrouped in Jordan in late September for the sixth edition of the West Asian Football Federation Championship. Having won the competition in four of the previous five instalments, Iran had to settle for the runners-up spot this time around. Ghotbi’s side topped their group before seeing off old rivals Iraq in the tournament’s semifinals, but then suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat to first-time champions Kuwait in the 3 October final. Still, it was a solid platform to build upon as Iran, and the rest of the region’s teams, look ahead to the next test of their strength – January’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar – where the Iranians will be looking to end a 35-year wait for continental glory.

“If the team is successful then individuals will win their own share of that success,” says Ghotbi, “but unfortunately in Iranian football culture we have often seen a ‘me or nothing’ mentality. My feeling is that this is something we have now changed within the team. We are starting to see the signs of the fruit of our work and the commitment to this change.”

Iraq coach Wolfgang Sidka, who also coached Bahrain on two occasions - including their qualifying campaign for the 2002 FIFA World Cup – echoes Ghotbi’s sentiments about the need for greater professionalism in Western Asia, particularly when compared to the countries on the eastern side of the continent. “In West Asia, professional football only really started in 2002 or 2003,” argues the German trainer. “So the history is just seven years old. Japan and South Korea have had it much longer. Australia are also a little bit further in front and that is something the West Asian countries have to address.

“For me, Iraq can play a major role in this region. We have 29 million people and we have many talented players. What they need is to improve everything in football and what they need is a partnership, for example, with one club in Germany or Europe who could share their knowledge and give support.

“I think the Iraqis have a good future. The problem is – and it’s the main problem in this region – everyone always expects that as soon as you start a new project you should immediately see good results. But life in general is not like this. Sometimes you have one bad year or two bad years before you can go forward again. In the Middle East, if you lose one match or two matches, everyone gets nervous.”

Keeping perspective
Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger is another European with a strong knowledge of West Asian football, having trained teams all over the Middle East as well as in his homeland. Speaking to FIFA World at the West Asian Championship, shortly before deciding to step down from his second stint as Bahrain’s head coach, Hickersberger pointed to the region’s challenging climate as one debilitating factor for the game’s development - but also stressed that the Middle East’s apparent current malaise may also have been somewhat exaggerated.

“The summers here make it too hot to play football all year round, and that perhaps makes it harder than in other countries, but I don’t know if there is one particular reason why the teams from around here didn’t make it to South Africa,” he shrugged. “I would say that many of the West Asian teams are working hard to close the gap on the world’s best nations. But so far, it just hasn’t worked out. You can always ask why, but you also have to remember that sometimes you need to have luck in your decisive matches. Especially when you are not as strong as your opponents, that is when you need quite a bit of luck.”

The region’s football supporters will of course be hoping to have luck back on their side when it comes to testing their mettle against the continent’s other leading teams at the Asian Cup. Following the doldrums of the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, there was certainly a sense of renewed optimism among the coaches at the West Asian Championship. Kuwait’s maiden title triumph was particularly encouraging, since it was achieved with a squad made up almost exclusively of players under the age of 23. Iran and defending Asian Cup champions Iraq also showed themselves to be in good form with their respective runs to the tournament final and semi-finals.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE were absent from the competition, choosing to focus instead on the 22 November-4 December Gulf Cup competition being staged in Yemen, the Yemenis themselves sprang a surprise by also qualifying for the last four as the best of the second-placed teams, ahead of Jordan and Bahrain.

“When you look back at the qualifying campaigns for 2010, maybe you could say that Iran or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain should have qualified, but I don’t think it all means that West Asia has gone backwards,” was the summary of Jordan coach Adnan Hamed, who led his native Iraq to the semi-finals of the 2004 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Athens.

“The Saudis drew 0-0 against Korea DPR in their final group game when a win would have seen them go through to South Africa, and then Bahrain were so close against New Zealand. If anything, I think West Asian football has improved since then, and I think we will have the chance to prove it at the Asian Cup when I believe we will see the champion coming from West Asia.”