How the Nations League impacts Asian football

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By Scott McIntyre

This month saw the start of the planet’s newest national tournament – the UEFA Nations League – with the competition presenting a series of key challenges and questions for Asian football.

Designed to enhance the competitive level of ‘friendly’ matches played on FIFA match dates that fall outside the cycle of World Cup or continental qualifiers the Nations League has generally been welcomed in Europe as a way to eliminate what are often derided as ‘meaningless friendlies’ in those nations where the domestic leagues are a financial juggernaut.

In essence it means that the bulk of the dates that were previously available for nations outside of Europe to arrange international fixtures with their UEFA counterparts are now closed off – particularly those windows in the second half of virtually every calendar year.

From a European perspective you can see the logic – eight of the top ten nations on the FIFA Ranking table are from UEFA (as are 30 of the top 50) – but the question that needs to be asked is what does this insular move do for development of the global game?

The immediate thought is that it greatly damages it and runs the risk of expanding the gap between Europe and the rest of the planet as the chances for those in South America, Africa and Asia (particularly the latter two) to test themselves against some of the world’s leading nations are now close to impossible outside of the major tournaments.

On the few dates that are available for the leading European nations when the new competition isn’t being played it’s almost certain that should they look for matches outside of their home confederation they’ll do so with an eye to South America.

For Asia this is already having a clear impact as the latest cycle of friendly matches showed.

In the ‘international’ windows during the second half of 2017, Saudi Arabia played Portugal and Bulgaria – contrast that to this week where their opposition was Bolivia.

For Japan, last year’s opponent Belgium was replaced by Costa Rica whilst South Korea switched Serbia and Russia with Costa Rica and a Chilean side that disgraced themselves with several racist incidents during their brief stay in the country.

Australia was matched with Norway and the Czech Republic earlier this year – in the next window it will Lebanon and so on and so on for the leading AFC nations.

Even at the next couple of levels down the impact is being felt where we saw Malaysia play (and lose to) Chinese Taipei whilst not one of Singapore’s last three opponents (Maldives, Mauritius & Fiji) have been even ranked inside the top 150.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that consistently playing this kind of opposition is only going to do damage to the long-term health of these national programs – as well as the vital ranking points that can be accrued – and this is the impact that Europe closing itself off to the rest of the world is going to have.

The immediate challenge for the AFC is to ponder whether or not to respond by devising their own version of the competition and given the money-spinning potential it would be a real shock if those discussions weren’t already well underway.

It’s move though needs to be carefully considered and one that the ‘big five’ (Japan, Korea, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia) will surely baulk at because if there is a positive to come from Europe closing itself off is that it opens up the possibility for greater connections to be forged between the leading AFC nations and those in Africa and South America.

After all, it’s likely that in any future World Cup the Asian teams will be grouped with the leading lights from those two confederations and together they can work to enhance their chances of success at the global showpiece.

Additionally, by agreeing to essentially play Asian opposition for most of the year it will also have a real impact on the ranking points those bigger AFC nations can collect and harm their chances when seeding is arranged for the World Cup.

For a continent that still shuns the game’s Asian roots in an unusual insistence of being its ‘birthplace,’ Europe’s latest move is one though that can surely greatly damage the development of football across the globe.

It’s interesting to note that at the same time that the Nations League is kicking off FIFA’s slogan of ‘For the Game. For the World.’ has quietly been replaced by the new ‘Living Football’ catchphrase.

The move by UEFA to look inwards is certainly not a move for the game (outside of Europe) or for the world and the question now is how will Asia respond?