"It is easy to recruit one thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general." So says the ancient Chinese saying which defines the importance of leadership. Indeed, it is a truth which has been borne out in many areas, not least of all on the football pitch. Indeed a series of Asian stars have shone in captaincy roles as their respective sides booked early progression in the continent's third qualifying stage for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Topping the list is Server Djeparov, whose brilliant contribution with Uzbekistan throughout 2011 saw him claim the AFC Player of the Year for a second time. The Al Shabab midfielder provided the driving force as his country stormed into the semi-finals in January's AFC Asian Cup for the first time in history, before steering the White Wolves through to the last ten in Asia's FIFA World Cup qualifying with two games to spare.
Having excelled since inheriting the captain’s armband from veteran striker Maksim Shatskikh, the 29-year-old didn't conceal his ambition as he spoke to FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "I think we are capable of going to the World Cup at Brazil 2014 this time," he said, "The current squad should be the best in our history and after failing at the last hurdles on the road to both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, we won't miss it for a third time."
Also impressing with the captaincy job is Iraqi talisman Younis Mahmoud, who scored the only goal in China PR, before repeating the feat in the return tie helping seal progression at the expense of the east Asians. Having maintained his high performance level with the country over recent years, the 28-year-old forward revealed that there is no secret of becoming a qualified captain other than working harder, both in training and competition.
"I would choose to retire if I want to live a comfortable life," said the Al Wakrah hotshot, "I usually spent more time in training and I have worked very hard so I can still keep up my form and score goals against the likes of China."
They have been playing key educational roles for the youngsters.
In Iran, the reliance on the leadership was such that coach Carlos Queiroz not only maintained Javad Nekounam in his skippering role, but also called veteran playmaker Ali Karimi to act as the team's vice-captain. His wisdom in deploying the creative partners in leadership roles has been justified with the pair amongst the team’s most consistent performers thus far, with the former driving the central field and the latter causing havoc with his surging runs.
For Queiroz, it was the duo's experience and commitment that marked them out as the team's influential figures. "Both players have valuable international experience which they are trying to share with the rest of the team," the former Ream Madrid and Portugal boss told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "They have been playing key educational roles for the youngsters."
A tale of two captains
Taking over the Korea Republic captain's armband from Park Ji-Sung, who announced his retirement from international football after January's Asian Cup, is Park Chu-Young who has thrived in his new role, netting six times so far to dominate the third round's scoring chart. Having completed a move from Monaco to Arsenal last August, the striker attributes training with the Gunners for his improved international form.
"Training with the top players in the world is helpful to me," he told the club's official website, "So I feel good when I play in the qualifying games. I was very happy to score in four straight games and it is important for our team to win those games."
His absence in their last match with Lebanon, understandably, proved costly as they fell 2-1 to the west Asians. Inspiring the home side to the spirited and historic victory, however, was his counterpart Roda Antar who has been instrumental in the last four qualifiers as his team obtained ten points to share the section's top spot with the South Koreans. A point against the already-eliminated United Arab Emirates in the concluding matchday next February will be enough to seal progression, and the former Cologne midfielder voiced confidence of making it through, although he will be forced to miss the match through suspension.
"We are now close to reaching the next phase. I’ll be unable to play in the last match, but I'm confident that my team-mates will manage without me. Hopefully we’ll manage a big achievement and advance to the final round."