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Asian and African nations' progress and future prospects

The global extravaganza of the FIFA World Cup is enthralling billions of soccer lovers worldwide.

FIFA World Cup

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 Dec 2022 4:31 AM GMT

FIFA World Cup

Monoj Kumar Hazarika

(mkhazarika11@gmail.com)

The global extravaganza of the FIFA World Cup is enthralling billions of soccer lovers worldwide. Football, the most popular sport, also has the highest viewership. But, the World Cup tournaments have been dominated by European and Latin American nations ever since its inception in 1930. The coveted trophy has been oscillating between countries from these two continents till now. Therefore, it's all about the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), CONMEBOL and CONCACAF (both are American football governing bodies) nations competing in the finals.

The significant change in the format for the finals over the years had allowed many more teams to participate. From a 13-nation tournament in the first edition, it became 16 nations during 1934-78, then extended to 24 during 1982-94, and finally become a 32-nation tournament from 1998-2022. This allowed more Asian and African nations to participate. Currently, as per the qualification criteria, four or five teams from Asia and five teams from Africa can play in the global event adding extra zing and flavour.

However, in the ongoing FIFA WC 2022, both Asian and African countries made their presence felt by putting up doughty performances and winning matches and more importantly pulling off upsets by triumphing over footballing giants. Argentina pipped by Saudi Arabia, Germany baffled by Japan and Wales tamed by Iran in the initial round were very encouraging. Similarly, Morocco defeating Belgium and holding Croatia, and Ghana challenging Portugal has displayed African grit and resilience. Two nations each from Asia and Africa progressed to the second round. The number of Asian teams winning group-stage matches has been steadily increasing. In 2018, four Asian teams recorded wins in the group stage. Among the twelve teams from Asian Football Association competing in the World Cup so far, three teams could able to reach the quarter-final stage and two teams- South Korea and Turkey - could able to reach the semi-finals in 2002.

African teams have recorded consistent wins in recent years. Cameroon's Roger Milla's stylish jigs near the corner flag after scoring goals in Italia 1990 caught the world's attention and beckoned the African vivacity. But, out of thirteen teams participating in the World Cup so far, the African team couldn't able to move beyond the quarter-finals despite reaching this stage thrice- Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. The only other non-European and non-Latin American team to play in a semi-final was the United States in its inaugural edition in Uruguay.

Although none among the eight SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) nations has ever played in the World Cup, India did qualify by default for the 1950 FIFA World Cup of Brazil after all other nations in their qualification group withdrew. However, India withdrew prior to the beginning of the tournament due to mysterious reasons. Nevertheless, India can still boost to have more than 300 million viewership of this tournament!

After some impressive shows in the qualifying round, Asian and African teams faltered in the second round. Japan did put up a gutsy show against Croatia but lost out in the penalties. But, Morocco's courageous fight against formidable Spain and defeating them in penalties to advance to the quarter-finals was truly amazing. Overpowering impressive Portugal in the quarter-final is more remarkable making them the first African country to reach the semi-finals.

Interestingly, the next 2026 FIFA WC edition will be hosted by 3 nations and will have 48 teams, further extended from 32. With the new format, Asian and African countries are set to benefit as they are likely to receive more slots meaning more teams from these continents will play in the next edition. It is also worth referring to the fact that seven big European clubs are now owned by Asians and the list might grow. Financial stronghold in another country might not guarantee excellence in their own country's game, but the level of interest and engagement will definitely get a boost. A glimpse of excellence displayed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar can be attributed to the number of resources put in for the development of the game. There is no dearth of talent, as many European premium clubs already have Asian and African superstars. Egypt's Mo Salah, South Korea's Son Heung-min and Cameroon's Samuel Eto have attained great fame. Football is a game of skill, stamina, endurance and the highest physical fitness, prospective youngsters can always benefit from training and playing in these clubs alongside European and American footballers. When Japan stunned Germany in their opening game in this Qatar WC, many commentators attributed this to the Japanese players' experience gained from their stint in Bundesliga. Playing in European premier leagues can help many players acquire top-class skills and endurance. Moreover, hosting global events more often in these continents will encourage the pursuit and motivate youngsters to play and enhance their quality. The future of Asian and African football appears to be bright!

While the world is presently enjoying the poise and panache of French forward Kylian Mbappe-who is emerging as one the greatest footballers in the world, Morocco continues to affect upsets. Although soccer greatest Pele's ambitious prediction that an African side will win the World Cup before 2000 remains unfulfilled, with Morocco reaching the semi-finals, one cannot rule out a possibility of his predictions coming true in Qatar!

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