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Opinion

Asian dreams challenge established World (Cup) order

As the post-1945 (soccer) hierarchy crumbles, emerging powers see opportunities

South Korea beat Germany at the World Cup in Russia. The shifting power balance in the sport mirrors changes taking place in political and economic order.   © Corbis/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump is not alone in thinking that the G-7 is past its sell-by date, in terms of structure and effectiveness. According to Jim O'Neill, the ex-Goldman Sachs economist famed for creating the BRICs acronym, "the Group of Seven has become increasingly irrelevant in a world of new emerging powers."

If the World Cup tournament is any guide, something similar is happening in the world of football (known to some as "soccer"). The post-Second World War hierarchy is visibly crumbling as new powers emerge -- yet the shape of the new dispensation has yet to become clear.

A kind of G-7 has long been in existence on Planet Football. Since 1954, just seven teams have won the World Cup. Of these, England, France and Spain have won once each. The real superpowers, in order of dominance, are the "G-4" of Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina. At least one of them has featured in the semifinals of every World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1930.

Until now, that is. Four-time winners Italy failed even to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Germany ended up bottom of its group, having been soundly beaten by South Korea. Argentina, despite the presence of Lionel Messi, the world's best player, failed to make the quarterfinals while Brazil, for so long the proud hegemon of world football, was dumped out by tiny Belgium.

This has happened because the gap in competitiveness between the best teams and the also-rans has shrunk significantly. Natural talent is still important, but so is the supporting infrastructure of coaching, tactical preparation, quantitative analysis of opponents' strengths and weaknesses, and diet and fitness management. It is hard to imagine a country without significant economic resources winning the World Cup; Africa has already produced many great players, but not any great teams.

Which brings us to the rising powers of Asia. Traditionally they have been a minor presence in the sport, but they have the resources and know-how to make a much greater splash. Do they have the commitment? Financially, yes. Asian money has flowed into clubs like Inter-Milan, Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion (all controlled by Chinese capital), Leicester City (controlled by Thai capital) and Atletico Madrid and Manchester City (stakes owned by Chinese capital).

The economic value of the Asian football market is attested by the regular summer tours of the region made by the big European clubs. Brand Finance, a U.K.-based business consultancy, notes that the "importance of the Chinese market for football is growing and the trend is reflected in the differences in brand value between those clubs that do well in China and those that are only starting to realize the country's potential." An illustration is Real Madrid's merchandising tie-up with China's e-commerce giant Alibaba.

What about on-field performance? Japan started its professional "J-League" just 26 years ago and qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998. Since then it has competed in six World Cups and in 2018 was the only non-European and non-Latin American country to make it through to the last 16. South Korea has a deserved reputation as a giant-killer; its recent victory over Germany follows on from its elimination of Italy in the 2002 World Cup, in which it placed fourth, the highest position recorded by an Asian country.

China is many years behind, but becoming a major power in football is now a national strategy, the sporting equivalent of its One Belt One Road cross-border infrastructure investment scheme. President Xi Jinping, apparently a longtime football fan himself, has listed three targets: hosting the World Cup, qualifying for the World Cup and winning the World Cup. Given that China is currently placed 75th in the world rankings, that last might seem a big ask. Yet teams can move a long way up and down the pecking order over time. Of this year's semifinalists, Belgium was ranked 71st in 2007 and war-torn Croatia had a ranking of more than 100 in the early 1990s.

The key point is to create a football culture, in which naturally-gifted athletes gravitate naturally to football. Here, as in many other areas, nobody could accuse China of lacking ambition. The Xi Jinping plan calls for 50,000 schools to have a strong emphasis on football by 2025, a tenfold increase since 2015. The number of football pitches across the country is set under this plan to grow from under 11,000 to over 70,000 by the end of 2020. By then 50 million Chinese, including 30 million students, are supposed to be playing regularly. To put that into context, Belgium's entire population is 11 million and Croatia's just four million. With that kind of numerical advantage and top-level backing, it would be extraordinary if China did not ultimately become a major force in football.

Beijing is explicit about its political agenda. As translated on the Wild East Football blog, China's official 50-point football reform plan opens with this ringing declaration by the General Office of the State Council:

"Football has a great social impact and is loved by the great masses. The development and revitalization of football will improve the physical condition of the Chinese people, enrich cultural life, promote the spirit of patriotism and collectivism, cultivate sports culture, and develop the sports industry."

There may be a strategic aspect too. For there is one powerful country where the great masses do not love soccer: the U.S. America's lucrative native sports -- basketball, gridiron and baseball -- are deeply embedded in the national psyche, but have limited appeal outside its borders. Soccer, by contrast, is the most watched sport in the world. By prioritizing football, China may have found a weakness in American soft power that it can exploit for many decades to come.

Football is played at a high standard in many different climates, from icy Scandinavia to tropical Colombia, and by many different ethnic groups and physical types. Unlike basketball or rugby, there is no premium for height or strength. Indeed, many great players have been, like Lionel Messi, short stocky men with wide hips and a low center of gravity. There are plenty of those in Asia.

So, can an Asian country win the soccer World Cup? That is a trick question because it has happened already. Japan won the Women's World Cup in 2011 and were runners-up in 2015. The Chinese women's team were runners-up in 1999 and placed fourth in 1995. The real question is when are the footballing achievements of Asian women going to be matched by Asian men?

It will take time, no doubt, but given the right amount of financial resources and public support, it would be no surprise if the FIFA World Cup Trophy were to be held aloft by an Asian male by the middle of this century.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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