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World Cup should boost Asian game

© Reuters 2002

By Ken Ferris

LONDON, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The World Cup finals will give Asia's qualifying teams the perfect opportunity to show the progress they have made on the pitch in recent years and should lift the profile of the sport throughout the continent.

"The first World Cup in Asia will be a major boost for the football on the continent as we expect a surge in the number of young people wanting to take up the game," says the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) head of communications A. Subramanian.

"Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and China will be seen as role models for other Asian countries to emulate." No Asian team has ever got past the World Cup quarter-finals with only the minnows of North Korea reaching the last eight after their heroic performances in England back in 1966.

None of this year's Asian teams are likely to surpass that performance but if the region is represented in the last eight in June that would be solid progress and should help to boost the fledgling professional leagues in South Korea, Japan and China.

It would also serve as an incentive for more people to play soccer and world governing body FIFA hopes staging the World Cup in Asia will increase active participation across the continent. Asia has a population of 3.2 billion people, including 2.1 billion in China and India, and stretches from Lebanon in the west all the way to the U.S. protectorate of Guam in the east, based on membership of the AFC.

The AFC was formed in Manila in 1954 with 12 founder members but has grown so fast that it now boasts a total of 44 countries and represents almost half the world's playing population.

The figures come from FIFA's 2000 worldwide official survey - known as the Big Count - which shows that the AFC region has more than 100 million active players in 35,000 teams at 29,000 clubs. That is two-fifths of the 242 million under FIFA's umbrella.

But soccer players in Asia account for just three percent of the region's growing population and the AFC hopes the excitement generated by the first co-hosted World Cup will change that. It has set a target of eight percent and believes progress by Asia's four qualifiers will help them to achieve their goal.

"We hope the biggest impact will be on China which holds tremendous potential for growth as a world power in the sport," the AFC's Subramanian told Reuters. He also hopes the tournament will enhance the level of professionalism and encourage more countries to set up organised league football in the region.

"The World Cup will also spur our members towards greater professionalism in their administration, communications, the leagues and the way their teams are prepared," said Subramanian. "We believe it is an excellent incentive for other Asian teams to go for professionalism or semi-professionalism to strive for excellence at the higher levels."

"Success has been in changing the Asian mentality in the quest for excellence. We have pushed hard for more professionals, not just in the leagues but the very way our national associations are organised or structured. "We are happy to see that we have been able to make much headway in this respect with more countries now having professional or semi-professional leagues and with better administration.

"We have been able to make investments in facilities for football and in particular stadiums (and) training fields. A huge investment has also been made in the training of coaches, administrators and medical personnel."

Japan's experience since the J-League began in 1993 is an example of football's potential in Asia. The first match drew a crowd of almost 60,000 to Tokyo's National Stadium and the league became a national sporting sensation overnight. The astonishing success surprised most people, including many who had opposed a professional league.

The J-League's success was partly due to its promotion of community-based clubs. In the past sport in the country had no structure and was either part of physical education in schools or a corporate employee welfare and fitness activity.

The J-League's mission was to develop an environment in which anyone could enjoy sports. The league believed this broader base would create many more outstanding athletes. The model the league turned to when establishing this system was found in Germany, where sports clubs are open to everyone.

The J-League's other guidelines promote fair play, safe and comfortable stadiums and the use of club facilities by the public so that sports other than football can benefit.

Each J-League club is active in promoting various sports in its hometown. The clubs co-operate with the local municipalities and sports organisations to teach mini-soccer and basketball.

The J-League structure helped to produce a squad that won the 2000 Asian Cup as it nurtured players such as Hidetoshi Nakata of Parma, Shinji Ono at Feyenoord and Arsenal's Junichi Inamoto.

The influence of the J-League is not lost on Japan's French coach Philippe Troussier. He is fully aware of the quality of his players and the fortunate position he has been in since taking over in September 1998, just a few months after the last World Cup.

"I'm very lucky to have this generation," Troussier once said. "It was born when they created the J-League. These players were 13 and 14 at the time and they grew up watching players like Gary Linker, (Dragan) Stojkovic and Dunga."

Asia will be hoping the arrival of the world's top players for the World Cup will have a similar effect on the youngsters watching the matches in Korea and Japan.

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