International Sports

For Asia's soccer teams to succeed, work starts off the field

Key Points
  • Most Asian nations rarely advance in FIFA's quadrennial World Cup competitions.
  • That's because many Asian households prioritize education over sports, according to former professional soccer player Tom Byer.

South Korea and Japan are the only Asian countries that regularly qualify for World Cup tournaments. While soccer is played throughout the region, long-standing sociocultural beliefs prevent the rest of Asia's nations from making history at FIFA's quadrennial competition, according to one former player.

Culture is "one of the biggest determining factors" for nations looking to improve their international standing, Tom Byer, an American who played in England and Tokyo, told CNBC following Sunday's World Cup finals.

Byer has been coaching youth teams in Japan for the past two decades, and he's gained celebrity status there for having discovered top-shelf talents such as Shinji Kagawa. Byer's company, T3 International, runs coaching academies that focus on technical aspects of the game such as ball control and shooting — a method of instruction that's widely believed to have boosted the skill levels of Japan's male and female teams.

Many Asian nations lack a real soccer culture and they prioritize education over sports, he explained.

South Korea's Hwang Hee-chan in action with Sweden's Andreas Granqvist at the 2018 World Cup in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

Indonesia and India, for example, are home to massive youth playing populations and fast-growing economies but still fare poorly at the FIFA World Cup for reasons that many attribute to chronic under-investment. India has never qualified, and Indonesia made the cut in 1938, but it was a Dutch colony at the time. The Southeast Asian nation was banned from all international football, including this year's World Cup qualifiers, due to state meddling in the domestic league.

In China, where Byer is head technical advisor for a national program that provides expert soccer training to schoolchildren, "families look at sports and football, in specific, as a distraction to education," he said. Beijing, however, has been investing heavily in the game in hopes of becoming a leading sports economy by 2025.

Croatia, which took second place on Sunday, is dwarfed by China's population "but when you put their development scheme under a microscope, you'll find there's a culture in place that's much more conducive to developing players than other countries," Byer noted.

"We've got a long way to go to change the perceptions and beliefs [in Asia]," he added.