For decades, a move to Europe has been the shared target of almost all Asian footballers. These days, however, that journey is being made both ways, with an increasingly large number of world-class players and coaches heading from west to east.
A notable example is former Lazio and England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took charge of Chinese side Guangzhou R&F midway through this season, his third job in Asia after short spells with Thailand giants BEC Tero and Al Nasr of United Arab Emirates.
Now 65, Eriksson has quickly proved that the old coaching magic has not deserted him, leading Guangzhou from the edge of China’s relegation zone to the top five. As the season draws to a close, Eriksson sat down with FIFA.com to hear his views on Asian football, his ambitions for next season and the prospects for former team England and his native Sweden at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
FIFA.com: Given your high profile in the game, you caused something of a surprise when you moved to Thailand last year to work as the technical adviser for local giants BEC Tero. What prompted you to make that decision?
Sven-Goran Eriksson: I have a few friends in Thailand, who asked me for help with the club when I was free. So I said, ‘Why not?’ BEC are a good club and have good potential, and the same applies to Al Nasr and Guangzhou [R&F]. Asian football is getting better.
What convinced you to join Guangzhou, who are not known to be one of China’s most famous teams?
I had been in the city of Guangzhou several times with friends before. It is a big city with a population of 10 million, and very international. I like this city. And the club have good players and are intent on developing the team.
Last month, your side lost against Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande. What are your views on the champions?
We are old friends so it was good that we met in the Chinese Super League. Lippi is a great coach and he has a very good team. They are the best side in China and among the top teams in Asia. They are now in the [AFC] Champions League final [against FC Seoul] and I think they can win the title.
Under your guidance, Guangzhou R&F have made big progress. What have you made of your first season in China?
The players have worked hard to achieve those results. We were aiming to take a place in next year’s Champions League but now it looks hard to realise that ambition. But I hope the players can maintain their performance level and do well in their last three games.
What goals have you set with the team for the next season?
Our target is to secure qualification for the Asian Champions League.
Will you be aiming to compete against Lippi’s Evergrande for the C-League championship?
(Laughs) They are a strong team. But of course we will do our work well to make our team stronger. The winter break will be important for us to prepare for next season.
Would you agree with Yakubu Aiyegbeni, who told FIFA.com that part of your management was always to encourage the players and gave them confidence?
Yes, that is what I did. Self-belief and confidence are vital for players to be able to compete against strong teams and win.
After working with three Asian clubs, what do you think of Asian football? In which areas do they need to improve to compete against European clubs?
For me, Asian football is not being left behind [the rest of the world]. It has developed very quickly over recent years. The progress is made not only on the domestic front, but also on international stage. Many Asian clubs, particularly here in China, invest big and sign good coaches and high-level players. [As a result], the general level has risen quickly. The only area for improvement I can see is at technical level.
Your native country, Sweden, have sealed a European Zone play-off place in qualifying for the World Cup. Are you confident they can make it to Brazil?
Sweden are a good team. The team have good players and they have been doing very well during the entire group campaign. It will be interesting to see which team they will be drawn against in the next stage. But I think they are capable of competing against anyone and winning it. I am really hoping they can reach the World Cup this time [after missing out in 2010].
What about your former team, England. What are your expectations for them at Brazil 2014?
For England, my expectations are always high. They are a big team and this current squad have some young and interesting players. They will be among the major contenders in Brazil next year and I hope they can do better than four years ago in South Africa.