On paper, the identities of the African Cup of Nations and Asian Cup finalists refer to very different competitions.
In the Asian Cup, Qatar's 3-1 victory over Jordan was a match between two underdogs, despite the fact that Qatar were the hosts and defending champions. To put things into perspective, these two countries have a combined population of 14 million people. It is about 10% of Japan's population and about 1% of China's population.
Meanwhile, Nigeria vs. Ivory Coast was a match between two countries that have produced as many great soccer players as any other African nation this century.
But looking beyond the finalists, the competition had similar themes. It is the lack of a truly dominant superpower. The pattern was certainly more pronounced in the Asian Cup, where South Korea lost to Jordan and Japan lost to Iran. However, the African Cup of Nations was highly unusual in that it featured eight quarter-finalists, different from the eight who reached that stage two years ago.
It can be considered positive or negative.
Unpredictability is good. That's the benefit of knockout tournaments. Shock is more likely to occur. And more broadly, it points to a repeating pattern in recent international competitions, particularly at last year's Women's World Cup. Broadly speaking, countries considered to be mid-tier in international soccer are partially closing the gap with relatively strong countries. Because they now have the scouting tools to prepare for the next challenge.
Large-scale thrashings are rare in tournaments these days. Their best wins in the Asian Cup were just 4-0 twice. They also had a record of 4 wins and 0 losses (twice) at the African Cup of Nations. The expansion of participation in both tournaments to 24 teams made for an unsatisfactory structure, but there were few problems with minnows staying outside the tier. Similarly, the number of teams participating in the European Championship could be expanded to 32 teams, without any noticeable drop in quality. Sweden, Norway and the Republic of Ireland haven't even qualified for the play-offs, so there will be no hope.
However, the other side of the coin is whether the top teams from these continents can challenge for the World Cup.
If anything, the Asian Football Confederation's powerhouse teams have regressed over the past 15 years. For example, in the 2006 World Cup, Australia traveled to Germany, who had a very strong eleven, but were unlucky to lose to eventual champions Italy in the round of 16. It felt as if Australia had come a long way, but what started as a golden age was when we competed with the world's best nations. They fought their way through to the last 16 in 2022, where they once again narrowly lost to eventual champions Argentina. But it was an underdog success against adversity.
Australia's Asia Cup squad had no Premier League players, apart from goalkeeper Joe Gauci, who recently signed with Aston Villa as back-up. That would have been unlikely in the days of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill.
Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, both looked very good at the 2010 World Cup. Again, both were eliminated at the last 16 stage, but they looked like upstarts enjoying the legacy of the 2002 World Cup. But once again, it seems to have gone away. Players of their generation aren't great either. From the 8-year-old boy who fell in love with soccer in 2002, he would now be a 30-year-old veteran.
Japan also advanced to the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup, defeating Germany and Spain in the group stage. But surprisingly, they haven't won the Asia Cup since 2011, and this time they unsurprisingly lost to Iran. South Korea continues to produce a small number of athletes capable of competing in elite European competitions, but nothing more. The appointment of coach Jurgen Klinsmann was unwise, and the team played poorly throughout the tournament, relying on four goals in stoppage time in the second half to advance to the semi-finals.
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In fact, the standard of play in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup has been poor, characterized by a lack of confidence in technical quality, too much cautious play, and a slow tempo. Although things were looking up in Ivory Coast, the hosts stumbled through to the final after a poor group stage that forced them to part ways with manager Jean-Louis Gasset. It's not so good for others.
All this means that the next World Cup is just two years away and the same old nation is likely to win. The bookmakers' favorites are his three traditional South American powers (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) and the usual Western European countries (France, England, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium). The United States and Mexico are next, with their chances improved by holding a tournament. Teams from Africa and Asia are low on the list, as are teams from South America such as Chile and Colombia, which were on the rise a decade ago but have since declined.
And while Morocco made history in 2022 by becoming the first African team to advance to the semi-finals after performing well throughout the tournament, the majority of the team was of European origin and were effectively considered non-European. It's worth remembering that. Enough to represent a stronger nation. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. Credit to Walid Reglagi for turning them into a resilient team. But if others are looking for inspiration, it's not the easiest model for most people to replicate.
It is also worth considering the continental distribution of the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first tournament to involve 48 countries. Africa is guaranteed nine spots and Asia is guaranteed eight spots, but these could increase to 10 and nine with an intercontinental play-off. There are many factors to consider when deciding how many spots to give each federation, including overall quality, breadth of quality, number of participants, and perhaps total population.
Based on the results of the past few weeks, Africa probably deserves 9th place or better, and Asia deserves less than 8th place. The serious minnows in this tournament are likely to come from the Asian Federation. If the qualifiers were the same eight teams that made it to the quarterfinals this month, we would have the relatively established quartet of Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran, plus the two finalists Qatar and Jordan, and the unranked teams. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will be added.
It would be a surreal feeling to see countries like the latter two face off in a World Cup tournament. But let's take a look at the results against the finalists. Uzbekistan only lost on penalties to Qatar, and Tajikistan only lost 1-0 to Jordan on an unlucky own goal.
So let's make predictions for the World Cup in two years. The true outsiders, those who would not have been in the tournament had it not been expanded to 48 teams, will do much better than expected. You probably won't advance from the group, but you won't be embarrassed.
But teams that are now supposed to be true continental giants in Asia and Africa, and perhaps North America as well, will never match the European or South American powerhouses as much as they did in, say, 2010. In many ways, soccer has become more powerful. It has gained worldwide attention over the past 15 years, but not in terms of who will actually win the World Cup.
(Top photo: Getty Images)