By Andrew Warshaw
January 3 – He’s arguably the main man behind Asia’s football development, a low-key understated but highly knowledgable figure respected throughout international football with a contacts book as long as your arm.
When the first Asian Cup to comprise 24 teams gets under way on Saturday, few outside of the participants themselves will be watching more keenly than Asian Football Confederation (AFC) technical director Andy Roxburgh.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the name, Roxburgh was Scotland head coach for seven years, taking them to two major tournaments, including the 1990 World Cup. Since 2015, he has been the AFC’s technical guru, the latest role in an impressive resume that also includes 18 years in a similar position at UEFA.
Typically, Roxburgh plays down his position but there is no doubting the contribution he has made in terms of improving the standard of Asian football and trying to bridge the gap with the world’s elite.
Setting up coaching forums and youth academies and introducing a grassroots charter may not seem that “sexy” compared with the likes of record-breaking transfers and Champions League-chasing glory but without Roxburgh’s input Asian football would not have made the progress it has over the last four years – on and off the pitch.
Arguably his biggest challenge has been trying to co-ordinate the various needs and requirements across such a huge and diverse continent.
“One thing I often tell people is that there is no such thing as Asian football, there is only football in Asia,” Roxburgh told Insideworldfootball. “That’s a very important distinction. What I’m trying to say is that there is no such thing as an Asian football style. It’s impossible when you have five regions that are all so different. West Asia, for instance, is another world from east Asia. The cultures and styles differ dramatically. Only perhaps Japan has an identifiable culture of football.”
“To say it’s been complicated is an understatement. It’s far more difficult than what we managed to implement in Europe where there was a massive history in many of the federations which we simply built on. In Asia, that history, that background isn’t there. For many years, their coaching work was centrally controlled. That means there’s a similarity about everything that’s getting done. What we have done is create guidelines so they can take responsibility for their own football.”
Whilst the Asian Cup will certainly act as a potential shop window for many of the talents on display over the next month, Roxburgh doesn’t anticipate too many of them being snapped up by European clubs.
“It’s true there are more African than Asian players moving to Europe but that’s because a lot of the Asians don’t feel the need to go to Europe. Okay there are exceptions like Son Heung-min at Tottenham but some of them are superstars at their own local clubs and are comfortable with that. Then there is the financial aspect. A lot of African players go to Europe to earn a fortune. The Asian players don’t necessarily need to do that.”
That’s not to say Roxburgh wouldn’t like to see more of them follow in Son’s footsteps. “Competition drives development and although the Asian Champions League is moving forward, the vastness of the continent makes it so complicated. It’s not ideal having a separate east and west format. The individual leagues in the likes of China, Japan and Korea are developing but you couldn’t say they are on a par with Europe. Competition is the key. At this moment in time, the best place for the best Asian players to be is in Europe. There are not enough of them right now. I’d like to see more but it’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to destroy the developing national leagues. China, for instance, have spent a fortune.”
One factor Roxburgh has encountered is that Asian fans invariably follow Europe’s elite leagues more than their own. “It’s not the best thing for local development when you see fans walking around wearing Man Utd or Liverpool strips. But what it does show is passion for the game. The fascination with football is incredible.”
Among Roxburgh’s accomplishments is the introduction of three separate specialist panels for coaching, grassroots and youth respectively.
“Everyone has grasped the concept of grassroots but Asia’s biggest problem, without any doubt, is elite youth football. It doesn’t exist to the same extent as it does in Europe. In some places they pick a team to play a FIFA tournament and it’s the first time some of them have ever played competitively. In Europe, young kids train on a regular basis. This is missing in many countries in Asia.
One interesting statistic is that 16 of the 24 finalists have European coaches. Only five come from Asia. “That tells you everything you need to know about the need to develop the coaching license in Asia. There is a reluctance in some parts to allow the local coach to handle star foreign players.”
Roxburgh is as intrigued as many about how the first expanded Asian Cup will pan out. He thinks on balance having eight more teams will prove a success.
“There was a lot of concern about expansion of the Euros but it turned out to be a bonanza with the likes of Iceland and Wales. Whether there are any equivalents among the so-called lesser Asian Cup teams I’m not sure. Right now, you’d have to say the nations that went to the World Cup would be favoured. Iran will be especially tough to beat as their opponents discovered in Russia. And the hosts always have an advantage though unfortunately the UAE have lost their best player.”
European fans peeved at being without their Asian players for a crucial period of the season may not realise that the Asian Cup is the second oldest continental tournament in world football. National pride is at stake. “It’s a seriously big deal for the Continent and of course the weather will be ideal for football,” says Roxburgh whose technical team will put together a detailed report after the tournament.
“It will also give people a clue as to what conditions will be like for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. We just need the teams to perform. One or two of them will be thinking beyond the tournament towards the World Cup. The eyes of the world will be on Asia over the next four years and that certainly focusses the mind on the next few weeks. One thing’s for sure: it will be very competitive from the knockout rounds onwards.”
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