I was ready. Ready with some paint. Blue and red. Ready to go ballistic with the car horn, which would have been a strange occurrence on these streets, for I was part neither of a wedding, nor a club victory nor a celebration of national importance. But the implications I deeply understood and was the seed to my mute happiness. It has taken a while, for an Asian team’s performance to be expectedly decent, than a freak show, but it is finally and consistently arriving.
Yes, I’m talking about the Asian football performances. The players that lined up during the Olympics have done the Asians proud. Japan’s women team made it to the finals, cementing their status as the world’s best after their 2011 World Cup victory. The Japanese and the Koreans will contest the bronze medal match in the men’s, and the UAE put in an exciting and brave performance in a very difficult group from which a Luiz Suarez and the reportedly self proclaimed 100 million player Edinson Cavani led Uruguay did not progress. So I am excited and worried at the same time.
There have been a string of performances by youth teams that has always laid foundations to huge expectations in the future. Who remembers the Ghana team that won gold? Or Ismael Mattar that won the Best Player award of the Youth World Cup tournament? They were expected to have blossomed into triumphant machines that outshone everybody else. Instead, Andres Iniesta that missed out on that award when Ismail Mattar won, has gone on to amass, 5 La Liga’s, 3 Champions Leagues, 2 Euros and a world cup. And he hasn’t stopped. So where did it all go wrong?
As much as raw talent is detrimental to a player’s growth, it is but not the only thing. In fact, it’s the least important thing afterwards. Raw talent opens the door for you. Walking through it, and out on to the field involves a whole lot of other things. The improvement of a player then comes down to one important factor; Competitiveness.
The more competition he gets and the better the quality of it, the more the need to improve. The need to raise the bar. Competition and the will to be better, and just to merely survive among the abundance of talent, improve a player. This is where things have gone wrong for Asian players in the past. After good performances on an international stage, they have merely receded back to mediocre leagues and plain teams and have been stuck in a time warp. The rest, meanwhile, has simply grown and become quicker, better, stronger and smarter, the rate of which astounds me. But that is professional sports. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers tells that at the start, everyone’s talent is comparable. But then a difference, leads to more resources, leads to a bigger difference, and this process continues until one player becomes great and the other a passing good that could have been better.
So if Asia wants to get better, let these players find themselves in the most difficult leagues. There is a fear, that the experience is going to leave them burned, at a disadvantage, broken when they end up back in their national leagues. But get this right – if they can’t survive in a tough league, they will never survive in a tough world cup. That dream of cheering ones own national team will remain but a dream. Money will be spent pledging allegiance to foreign colors to be part of the football experience instead of the one you have pledged real allegiance. So stick up and work so that Asian players get a chance abroad. Then we will see the difference. Then we will be supporting our own in a World Cup semifinal.
If you’d ask any Japanese, ten years ago, if they would ever envision the signing of a Japanese player, heralded as the most exciting signing of a season, they would have avoid the subject to think you are simply joking. But Kagawa has arrived at Old Trafford. And let’s sincerely hope this is the start of the run of the good times for Asia.