Why Asians Can’t Play Football

Writer Andrew Leci wonders if Asians are holding themselves back from greatness on the football field.
Wednesday 21 March 2018
Photo: Getty

When the Scotland football team failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup Finals – the latest in a series of inglorious, epic fails for the national side – their manager, Gordon Strachan, came up with an excuse that displayed a level of imagination and creativity his players couldn’t emulate on the field.

Strachan summed up his team’s failure to emerge from a group containing Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and the mighty Malta (with a population of less than 440,000, the latter probably has more Sicilian shrews on its archipelago than people), in a single word: “genetics”.

Cast aside the widely held belief that Scotsmen are broad, brawny, caber-tossing leviathans, Strachan seemed to suggest, and instead compare their height and musculature to, for example, the hearty stew and porridge-eating Slovenians who bullied them off the park in the crucial final qualifying group game.

Facts, unfortunately, do not bear out Strachan’s hypothesis, and he was widely pilloried in the media for his feeble attempt to clutch at straw-coloured excuses, perhaps to deflect from his ineptitude as a coach.

I can’t help wondering if the coaches of Asian teams may not be tempted to grasp this particular nettle in their explanations as to why an Asian nation has never won the World Cup, and sadly, possibly never will.

Of the 20 World Cup Finals to date, 11 have been won by teams from Europe, and nine by teams from South America. Asia’s best performance to date was when South Korea reached the final four back in 2002, when the national team was carried along by a wave of fanatical home support and a fair amount of lactic acid-inducing derring-do. The Duracell bunny would have taken early voluntary retirement.

Beating powerhouses Italy and Spain along the way seemed to suggest shifting sands in the global football landscape and a promising dawn for the world’s most populous continent. It’s fair to say that the sun didn’t quite rise.

The 2018 edition of the greatest football show on earth will not be featuring a team from China, a country with more people to draw on to put together a decent football team than any other nation on the planet. If Iceland, for example, has a pool of talent from which to source, China has the equivalent of a great lake, if not an entire ocean.

Just do the maths, and ask yourselves why China can’t produce a team sufficiently competitive on the international stage to make a significant impact. As a country, it may be finding the back of the net in the geopolitical and macroeconomic 18-yard box, but on the football field goals are easier to define but harder to come by.

Does the fact that table-tennis is played by a third of the Chinese population, and Mahjong is afforded the status of a sport by China’s National Administration of Sports have anything to do with it? Interesting, but facile question?

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Gordon Strachan. Photo: Getty


Perhaps Gordon Strachan had a point after all. The average Asian body size is smaller than those of their European and South American counterparts, and while size isn’t always everything (I’ve been told) the physicality of the modern game is an undeniably important factor.

The disadvantage of being smaller would then also explain why players such Pelé (5’8” or 172cm), Lionel Messi (5’7”), Diego Maradona (5’5”) and indeed Strachan himself (5’6”, with more than 50 caps for Scotland and scorer of one of the best goals ever seen in the World Cup) have had such little impact in world football. Obviously, it doesn’t.


Does a rice-based diet provide insufficient nutrition/energy for a 90-minute game of football? Or are the Chinese too busy doing other things – embracing change, for example, or clasping rampant capitalism to their heaving breasts in the spirit of economic imperialism – to make success on the foot-balling stage anything other than a passing fancy?

Studies suggest that the intake of micro and macronutrients in the first 1,000 days of life, from the point of conception to a child’s second birthday, establishes physical and mental development for one’s entire life, and it’s been well documented that nearly two-thirds of the world’s ‘stunted’, malnourished children live in Asia.


Do Asian nations simply not have the relevant mindset to enter the ultra-competitive fray of global sporting competition? Are they too busy nation building to concern themselves with the frivolities of sporting conquest? Perhaps sport, and by loose extension the concept of ‘leisure’ is the domain of the developed world, and quite a lot of people in this region have other things with which to concern themselves. All sport, and particularly football, is predicated on a ‘winning mentality’ to achieve success, and perhaps Asia simply doesn’t have it.


Are Asians too polite to do whatever is necessary to win on the field of play? I’d pay good money to bear witness to a straw poll being conducted on the streets of Hong Kong on that one.

Or do they simply not have the balls to put themselves on the line? Football is a team sport, and while Asians are renowned for their communal spirit, there are emerging signs that modernity and the age of advanced technology are eroding that spirit. ‘Every man for himself’ is no way to build a team.

There is also the issue of ‘face’ and the attendant fear of failure and ridicule. Few cultures put losers on pedestals, and appearances are important in many Asian civilisations and have been since time immemorial. And while communal sports and activities are popular across the continent – marching is very popular in North Korea, I’m told – that’s simply a bunch of people doing exactly the same thing and the antithesis of the individual creativity and creative responsibility that would produce a successful football team.

Winners and losers are part and parcel of the sporting topography. Could it be that Asians are not psychologically prepared to enter into an equation in which they don’t control the balance?

There are so many questions, and the answers to date are less than satisfactory, although Gordon Strachan, now unemployed, would, I’m sure, be only too happy to regale us with some. Or is he too busy conducting genetic research in a Glaswegian watering hole?

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.