The reputation of Asian football took a bit of a pummelling at the 2014 World Cup, with Australia, Japan, Iran, and South Korea all finishing bottom of their groups and failing to pick up a single win between them.
Such poor form ran counter to the AFC’s bold claim that ‘The Future is Asia’, but hiring Andy Roxburgh as the confederation’s new technical director may help to bring about a change in fortunes for the world’s biggest continent.
The vastly experienced Roxburgh was the first ever technical director of UEFA – where he worked for 18 years between 1994 and 2012 – and for the last two years served as sporting director of the New York Red Bulls. On Wednesday he spoke to the media for the first time since assuming his new role with the AFC, and was clear that he expects proactive steps to be made.
“There’s a line that I always like to use – is it chance or design?” the 71-year-old said ahead of the AFC’s 26th Congress in Bahrain. “Now, we can sit back here and cross our fingers and hope there’s another Omar [Abdulrahman] – we can sit back and cross our fingers and hope they’ll just turn up, but you might wait forever.
“The thing is to design your way forward. To design youth programmes. Grassroots is vital, that’s a major element.
“It’s one thing to say ‘what do we need to do?’ – we need to have top leagues, top players, top coaches, top results – but how do we do it?
“As a coach – a frontline national coach or club coach – your job is to win the next game. The job of the technical director is to win the next 10 years. You’re more about tomorrow.”
One thing that Roxburgh is looking to implement to answer that question of ‘how’ is a system whereby the continent’s top coaches are able to regularly meet and exchange ideas – something he also carried out at UEFA. The first such event will be conducted in August, when Asian national team coaches will convene in Kuala Lumpur.
“You bring colleagues together and they exchange ideas and thoughts – getting people to tell them about programs that have worked well and try to help them with their preparations and all those kind of things,” he explained. “The people that are running the teams are already top level, but you would find that most of them are open-minded and willing to share ideas. I think that’s the key, our job is to facilitate that possibility and share knowledge, so we’re not isolated.”
Iran are currently the highest-ranked Asian nation in 40th (Japan are next, in 50th), but for Roxburgh the statistics on paper are irrelevant when compared to how things go out on the pitch.
“You can read too much into rankings,” the Scot said. “The rankings thing is nice, people like seeing that – it’s the kind of thing in tennis that looks great – [but] in football the most important thing is how do you get on in the major competitions. Do you win things? Do you get to the next phase of the World Cup? Do you regularly qualify?”
In order to bring about a situation in which Asian nations – regardless of where they sit in FIFA’s hierarchy – are able to regularly achieve results in those respects, the former Scotland manager believes that structure is vital.
“If you don’t have progressive coach education then you’re always going to be limited,” he said. “If you look at the World Cup winners of recent times, the last three World Cup winners, you have to look at them and say to yourself, how did they get where they got to? And one of the main reasons is progressive coach education. Coach education and player development are the two keys.”
In addition to providing Asian coaches and players with the education to challenge themselves at the highest level, Roxburgh also thinks there needs to be a strengthening of resolve.
“Let me say it this way: there’s talent in Asia, but talent is never enough. Talent is never enough. Many people you see, whether it’s a coach or a player, they’re very talented and yet they don’t quite make it to the top level. Because what you need beyond that talent is you need commitment, you need desire.
“If you don’t have that talent or desire – and we can even add the word confidence as well – in some cases you will get players – and we don’t need to refer to individual countries here, it’s the same all over the world – who, whether for cultural reasons or personal reasons, lack that desire, then that talent will never mature into what we hope it to become.”
It could be argued that this has been a key failing of Japanese players in Europe over the years – and also of the national team as a whole at the last World Cup and January’s Asian Cup – and Roxburgh recalls a conversation he had at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium with childhood friend and teammate Sir Alex Ferguson about the requirements of succeeding as an elite player.
“I was on the pitch with Sir Alex, walking across the field. And I said to him, ‘Alex, what do you look for in a player?’ The place was empty and he said, ‘Assuming they’ve got the talent, I look for players that have the qualities to play in this environment in front of 67,000 people every week and like it.’
“It was that punchline, ‘and like it’. In other words that means they’ve got to have the kind of mentality, not just the ability but the mentality to play there.”
For that to happen, Roxburgh believes that Asian players need to be better prepared to achieve results when the chance to play in Europe arrives, which means the continental game as a whole needs to improve.
The Scot has regularly visited Japan for the past 15 years and cites Japanese football and the J-League as an example of what can be achieved with the right planning and infrastructure. He concedes, however, that not all Asian nations have been able to achieve similar success, and thinks more needs to be done to raise the level beneath Asia’s heavy hitters.
“It would be advantageous if we could narrow that gap, make it even more competitive than it is today, of course. [Japan] would be the first to say to you they would like the gap narrowed so that things become far more competitive.”
While for many it may be seen as little more than a pipe-dream, the JFA’s oft-stated target of winning the World Cup by 2050 strikes a particular chord with Roxburgh, who feels that such bullishness should be more prevalent throughout the continent.
“I was very impressed by this because the Japanese are very focused and saying ‘we are going to win that World Cup’,” he said. “If more countries in Asia had that focus and that attitude then who knows?”