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Nov 26 - Dec 8, 2019
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Qatar is systematic and meticulous in football development, says top AFC official

'The Asian football family is confident that Qatar will do us proud when they host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.'
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The AFC and the global football community is looking forward to a truly magical FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022, says AFC General Secretary Windsor John. Photo: AFC

Qatar’s rise to the top of the Asian football hierarchy is the result of long-term planning and hard work – a vindication of the country’s strategic and pragmatic approach towards talent scouting and youth development.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup triumph has enhanced Qatar’s profile and they will be taking the field as Asian champions when they host the Arab world’s first FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) General Secretary Windsor John is a man instilled with lifelong passion for the game. He has served football in different roles – as a player, coach and administrator – before occupying the crucial position at the AFC.

Windsor has been working hard to raise the level of professionalism and capabilities of the AFC member associations and thereby usher in a new era of progress for football in the continent.

Inside Qatar spoke with him about Qatar’s rise to the top, its preparedness for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the overall standard of football in the continent.

Excerpts:

With Qatar winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, there is a new order in Asian football. There is also a huge improvement in the standard of football played by them. What do you attribute this to?

Qatar certainly deserve our praise for their remarkable consistency and quality in clinching their inaugural AFC Asian Cup crown. Their achievement is even more commendable, considering they entered the tournament as one of the youngest teams with an average age of just 24.87. With an impressive 19 goals and just the solitary goal conceded in the final, against Japan, they set the benchmark for all Asian teams.

More importantly, we know that their success is the culmination of a systematic, comprehensive and meticulous approach to football development and planning. It starts from the grass-roots level and moves up to the elite youth level and even to coach education.

It’s a long-term journey committed to strengthening their player pipeline and pathways, which was put in place for more than a decade when they won the bid, in 2010, to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Their Asian Cup victory is testament to the hard work and immaculate planning undertaken by the Qatar Football Association (QFA). The Asian football family is confident that Qatar will do us proud when they host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Asia has the majority of the world’s population, some of the richest countries and biggest economies, but its football is still far behind compared to Europe, Americas or even Africa. What are the main reasons for this? And what could be the remedies, both short-term and long-term?

Asia is indeed home to the world’s largest population, but its position as an economic superpower has only taken shape in the last decade. From a global development point of view, not just in football, Asia has made remarkable strides, but it’s only in recent years that we’ve seen the continent take centre stage.

From a football development perspective, the key difference between Asia and Europe is essentially in the area of professionalism. For several decades now, the players and teams in the European leagues and the Americas have been exposed and conditioned to a professionalised, well-organised and highly competitive environment.

One fine example is Japan, who are today considered one of Asia’s powerhouses. The fully professional J.League, which replaced the semi-professional Japan Soccer League, was only launched in 1993, compared to many of the top leagues in Europe, which have been running professionally for almost a century.

But despite this, there can be no denying the progress and rise of Asian teams in the last decade. And for us at the AFC, ensuring the success of our players and teams through staging top-level competitions has been at the heart of our ‘Vision and Mission’, which was launched nearly four years ago, under the leadership of our President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

And already, our investment in our competitions is paying dividends. At the last FIFA World Cup in Russia, a record five Asian teams registered more points in the group stage than any other edition in history. Japan, who became the first Asian side to defeat a South American team, were just minutes away from reaching the last eight – losing narrowly to eventual third-placed Belgium.

Our youth teams are also proving to be a force on the world stage. In the FIFA World Cup U-20 in Poland, Korea Republic equalled Asia’s best showing at the tournament by finishing runners-up to Ukraine.

Our women’s teams are also world class. Japan lifted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in France last year, ensuring the crown stayed within Asia after DPR Korea won the previous edition in 2016. The North Korean women had also won the FIFA U-17 World Cup the same year.

Having said that, there remains plenty of room for improvement for many Asian countries – to enhance competition structures at the youth level if we want to raise the competitive level, for both men and women, within Asia and on the world stage.

The overall quality at the Asian Cup in the UAE was mediocre, with traditional powers like South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia failing to make it to the semifinal. Even Japan failed to reproduce their customary flair. Did increasing the number of teams to 24 affect the overall quality?

I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment of the tournament, particularly when you consider that it broke all TV viewership and digital engagement records. On the contrary, the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 will take its place in history as the tournament which gave rise to the continent’s emerging nations. While some of the traditional heavyweights failed to make it to the later stages, we must also admire the progress of teams like debutants Kyrgyzstan, who together with Oman reached the knockout stage for the first time.

Similarly, Vietnam showcased why they’re one of Asia’s most promising sides when they were able to transfer their impressive form in the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship in China to the Asian Cup in UAE where they reached the quarterfinal for the first time, before going down fighting against Japan.
And there were encouraging displays by countries such as India, Jordan, Palestine, Philippines, Thailand, and Turkmenistan.

When we decided to expand the competition from 16 to 24 teams, the intent was to provide more countries with more opportunities to benefit from top-class competition.

Our aim was, and continues to be, to close the gap between the inspiring, developing and aspiring nations and I’m pleased to note the significant impact the decision had in bringing our bold ambitions to life.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup coming to Asia for the second time, after 2002, how excited is AFC? Which are the organisational areas where the continental body would be directly involved?

The AFC and the global football community is looking forward to a truly magical FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022. It’ll not only be the second time that Asia hosts the global extravaganza, but also the first time the West Asian region will have a chance to show their passion and warm hospitality to the world.

The AFC Executive Committee, at its meeting in Moscow in June 2018, had decided we’ll provide administrative, organisational and technical support to Qatar. Hosting the FIFA World Cup is a prestigious occasion for any country and for any confederation and we’re determined to ensure that Qatar enjoy the same success as Korea Republic and Japan in 2002.

What are AFC’s strategy and future plans to develop the overall quality of the game in the continent?

Four years ago the AFC had outlined its plans to ensure Asian football and the AFC is recognised as the blueprint for success across the world of football.

We underlined our ambitions to be the world’s leading confederation, to ensure the success of our teams on the world stage and confirming football as the number one sport throughout the continent.

To fully realise this vision, the AFC identified seven mission statements with an emphasis on Member Associations’ development, enabling the success of Asian teams, producing commercially attractive products, implementing good governance and professional standards, ensuring utmost integrity at all levels and using football as a force for social good.

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Windsor John

It was an ambitious plan, but already we’ve achieved so much in the last four years. The strong foundations set the AFC on the path of announcing a record commercial rights deal with our partners DDMC Fortis in October last year. It’s a historic agreement which guarantees the financial stability of not just the AFC, but every one of its Member Associations and will position Asian football to usher in a new era of success – a better, brighter future for the next eight years.

Is there any special development plan on AFC’s part to boost the women’s game in Asia?

The AFC President, Shaikh Salman, identified women’s football as one of the key areas of investment and development. The AFC’s strategy for women’s football development has a clear aim – we want all women and girls in Asia to have an opportunity to play football.

In April last year, the AFC Women’s Asian Cup was hosted successfully in Jordan, the first time it was staged in West Asia and reinforced our desire to bring the game closer to women of all nationalities and backgrounds. This tournament has played a pivotal role in developing Asian women’s teams. There’s a high level of competitiveness in the women’s game throughout the continent and that’s why Asian teams are a force on the world stage, with five of them currently among the top 20 of the FIFA World Rankings.

The success of Asian women’s teams, from the age-groups to the senior levels, is also a sign of the progress and promise of our continent. From the AFC Expert Pool to the first AFC Women’s Elite Coaches’ Forum, our commitment to women’s football has never been stronger.

Looking ahead, the AFC will continue to encourage more Member Associations to compete at the highest levels in all age groups. We need to make sure that we keep challenging the world’s best for the top positions while developing grass-roots and bridging the gap between the top and the developing nations.

Ultimately, the success of the women’s game in Asia will depend significantly on the journey designed and travelled together as one, united family.

A record number of Asian referees officiated at the Russia World Cup. What were the initiatives from AFC on improving the referees’ standards?

Our ambition is to see our players and officials succeed on the world’s biggest stages and the enormous strides our match officials continue to undertake solidifies Asia’s position as global leaders in world refereeing.

We’re resolute in ensuring that our match officials are given the best possible opportunities to succeed and the AFC Referee Academy – the first of its kind at the confederation level – is a fine example of our commitment to developing and nurturing our referees.

The academy is designed to emphasise on talent identification and development, and is being driven by a comprehensive syllabus, delivered by some of the industry’s best educators.

Some Qatari referees were invited to officiate at the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup. This was another feather on AFC’s cap, isn’t it?

The AFC is delighted to continue our strategic partnership with CONCACAF. As part of our long-standing Memorandum of Understanding, we had three match officials from CONCACAF at the AFC Asian Cup in the UAE earlier this year.

Similar to the AFC, CONCACAF is also a diverse region and the exchange programme was extremely valuable in providing opportunities to match officials from both continents. It helped them adapt to different styles of play, get to know diverse cultures and officiate matches under different conditions. It’ll ultimately raise the standard of referees from both confederations. We’ll continue to strengthen our collaboration for the benefit of the global game in the years ahead.

With some of the Leagues, say China, Japan, Qatar and others, signing marquee players there is an increasing global interest in Asian football. Do you think this trend could be sustained and eventually help Asia to catch up with the rest of the world?

As we’ve seen in all the major leagues around the world, quality relies significantly on the calibre of its players, so it most certainly bodes well for Asian football to be able to attract some of the biggest stars of the game.

The AFC Champions League is the ultimate stage for our clubs and increasingly we’re seeing more teams showcasing greater ambitions by strengthening their squads. This will ultimately benefit our passionate fans and raise the global appeal and prominence of our premier club competition.

Given the huge size of Asia, its varied cultures, languages and also different time zones, administering it is a challenging task. Is AFC thinking of any ways to make it a smoother affair?

No confederation has more time zones than the AFC. We’re continuously looking for ways to improve, but we must ensure that we strike the right balance in protecting the safety and physical well-being of our players as well as the operational efficiency and commercial viability of our competitions.

We should take great pride that, despite these challenges, Asian football is home to several world-class competitions and credit must be given to our Member Associations, leagues, clubs and local organising committees.

The AFC’s Medical Committee has also agreed to conduct a comprehensive study on the effects of travelling across multiple time zones and its report should be immensely beneficial in taking certain decisions on match scheduling.

Asia’s premier club competition, the AFC Champions League, has to fight hard with European competitions for viewership. How would you overcome this situation?

We must remember that the AFC Champions League is already a global brand. You only have to look at the engagement records – stadium attendance, TV viewership and social media engagement – that continue to increase steadily year-on-year.

In each of the last two seasons, we’ve set new attendance records for the double-legged final and last year, a record crowd of 100,000 fans witnessed Kashima Antlers lift the coveted crown at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. It may be recalled that that this figure is nearly 40 per cent more than the 2018 UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid.

True to our commitment to excellence, we increased the winner’s prize money to $4m in 2018, making it the second richest after the UEFA Champions League. And this year, we’ve doubled the travel contributions for all teams, across all stages of the competition.

The AFC is understandably proud of the impact of our Champions League and its contribution towards improving the standard of club football, not only in the participating countries but also across the continent.

Two thirds of the world’s population live within our confederation. Growth ‘at home’ is as important as global expansion and we’re confident that our new commercial partnership with DDMC Fortis will enhance the quality of all our competitions, which in turn, will increase global awareness and ultimately, unlock the undeniable promise of Asian football.