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It’s time for fans in Asia to stand up to football xenophobia

With Argentina and other traditional football powers in danger of missing out on the World Cup, Ali Khaled looks at why the issue of allocations is being debated again.

We live in uncertain times. The people are up in arms. Enough is enough.

Lionel Messi might not be going to the 2018 World Cup.

Less hysterically, that should read: the world of football is going through uncertain times, and Argentina are in danger of missing out on Russia next summer.

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But that’s not how football fans reacted to the Albicelestes latest dismal result against Peru in the early hours of Friday. There is genuine anger and frustration that the world’s greatest player has carried his embarrassingly underachieving international colleagues as far as is humanly – or in his case, superhumanly – possible. While the world will mourn his absence, should it come to pass, there will be few tears shed for the likes of Gonzalo Higuian, Angel Di Mari, and the rest.

A first World Cup without Argentina since 1970 could well see the last chance to see Messi on this stage gone.

Most football fans, with the exception of the Cristiano Ronaldo fan club perhaps, agree that a Messi-less World Cup will be devalued, a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with.

But, sadly, that is not were the narrative stops.

The 0-0 draw with Peru in Buenos Aries has left Argentina in precarious position, and their most likely route in to the World Cup seems to be via a play-off against the winner of the Oceania section. A win in Ecuador on Tuesday should guarantee at least that, and a potential two-legged tie with New Zealand for the right to be in Russia.

This however, is not enough for many fans. Times like these inevitably demand the World Cup allocations of the Asian and African confederations are dragged into the debate.

In short, the argument goes something like this: Why should South American nations like Argentina or Chile, the US and European heavyweights likes the Netherlands (potentially) miss out on the World Cup to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran or any of the African nations.

Currently the CONMEBOL has 4.5 spots, guaranteeing four qualifiers and one play-off spot for South America’s 10 competing nations. Uefa is guaranteed 13 spots for its 54 member states, not including the hosts Russia. Even the CONCACAF, with some of the lowest ranked nations in the world, has 3.5 for its 35 members, the best of whom – Mexico, US, Costa Rica – are rarely in danger of missing out.

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Meanwhile Africa (CAF) has 5 spots for 54 countries; Asia (AFC) 4.5 for 47, and poor old Oceania (OFC) the booby prize of facing whatever North or South American team happens to be going through an identity crisis at the time qualifying, most likely Argentina this year.

That’s a confirmed 40% (and potential 50%) of South American nations heading to the World Cup. That drops to a still considerable 25% of European nations. For North America, it’s 10 %, and for the CAF and AFC, it is just below that.

Yet even that is still not a big enough piece of Fifa’s pie for some.

Their argument is laced with ignorance and xenophobia.

Here are a selection of comments from Twitter over the last few days: “It’s not fair for football fans who want to see the best at the WC, not Saudi or Japanese cones who are only there because of geography”; “This is were FIFA have ****ed it all up…Saudi has qualified…Holland, Scotland, Wales may lose out…”; and “Absolute travesty that Asia has the same number of World Cup qualifying spots as South America. Fifa should be ashamed.”

While these comments are selective and are in no way a representative of any majority, they are still telling of wider perception.

There was even one demand that eight of the 10 CONMEBOL nations be allowed to progress. In the current format, that would mean a qualifying campaign of two years, involving 90 matches and all the travel and costs that entails, to eliminate just two nations. It would be far simpler to be done with the whole process and chuck out the two poorest nations.

Would that be acceptable? Or are such notions reserved only for African and Asian countries?

And if your sole purpose, as a football fan, is to watch only the most skilled practitioners of the game, then surely there are plenty of competitions unsullied by those no-hopers from Africa and Asia to keep you satisfied.

Take your pick from the Euros, the Copa America, and their spoilt offspring, the increasingly mind-numbingly predictable Uefa Champions League.

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This, however, is not a straightforward black and white issue. As many have pointed out, a sizeable portion of Middle East and Asian football followers are themselves far more interested in European and South American football than they are in their own, as a cursory look at domestic attendances will reveal.

Crowds across the Gulf, for example, are, with a few exceptions, abysmal. On Saturday Shabab Al Ahli Dubai (merged from three clubs) and Sharjah (merged from two), played out a 3-3 draw in the UAE’s League Cup, now under the title of Arabian Gulf Cup. Less than 600 fans turned up.

The pattern is repeated across the Middle East and Asia to varying degrees, with the exception of a few superpowers like Japan and South Korea. Even in Australia, there are complaints that thousands of fans will wake at unreasonable hours to watch Premier League matches before attending local A-League matches.

When Liverpool host Manchester United in the Premier League next Saturday, domestic matches taking place across Asia around the same time will be nothing more than trees soundlessly falling in forests.

The issue of low attendances remains an existential one in Asia and the Middle East, and deserves wider context and discussion. Still, it starkly highlights the chronic lack of interest in domestic football across football’s least respected continent.

But are the empty stadiums a symptom of an admittedly very poor standard of football? Or is the low quality of football necessarily a result of years of supporter apathy and other socio-economic factors?

Inseparable from the debate is the attraction of the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A, the Uefa Champions League and international football.

That football in Asia is of a significantly lower standard, and thus far less enticing, than it is in Europe or South America is not debatable. Still, perhaps it’s time for the continent’s football fans to reject the insulting disregard their countries are held in across the world, rather than enable it.

Otherwise, you can have no complaints when the less enlightened out there continue to see you as world football’s joke, undeserving even of that measly 0.5 World Cup spot.

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