Who doesn’t dream about playing against some of the biggest stars in world football? For the vast majority of players around the world, the chance to take on giants of the world game such as Spain and Brazil is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
For those Asian teams that don’t qualify for the World Cup, and that is 90 percent of them, the only chance to meet the world elite is in friendly games. But these are not always the dream matches that one may think.
Earlier this week, China went to South America and lost 8-0 in what was perhaps the most disappointing international result involving an Asian team since Saudi Arabia lost by the same scoreline to Germany at the 2002 World Cup. Such results obviously don’t do the image of Asian football any good at all.
At least there were some mitigating circumstances in the case of China. The team was in Brazil for a start, this was no neutral venue, and not many teams get a result down there. And coach Jose Camacho was missing a number of his best players. Guangzhou Evergrande, champions, leaders and home to a number of the top Chinese stars, have a big Asian Champions League match to look forward to next week. It is a long way for Beijing to Brazil, it really is, and there was no way that Marcello Lippi was going to let his players spend more than 48 hours travelling for a friendly with the biggest game of the season around the corner.
But still 8-0 is 8-0 whoever you play against, and it is that little bit worse when it is a friendly. Friendlies conjure images of more gentle games; you don’t expect teams to score eight in an exhibition. It just doesn’t happen. If the flight to Brazil was long, the flight back would have felt a lot longer for the players and coaching staff after suffering their worst defeat since 1936.
Saudi Arabia fared better but not much, losing 5-0 to Spain in Pontevedra on Friday evening. Saudi fans expected defeat too, but pointed the finger at coach Frank Rijkaard for his team selection and ignoring most players from the big two clubs in the country, Al Hilal and Al Ittihad. The result was the same, well, almost.
It is a tough situation. Journalists and fans, rightly, call upon Asian teams to seek out good opposition at every opportunity. While it is understandable that Southeast Asian teams play teams from within the region all the time — it is cheaper and just much more convenient than travelling around the world — there are times when all teams need to spread their wings and have new experiences.
Before the Spain and Brazilian matches however, both Rijkaard and Camacho talked of learning from the experiences. But what can you learn from being completely and totally thrashed? Only the best coaches could take something valuable from such a game. It is not difficult to tell players, Hollywood-style, to remember the bitter taste of a big defeat and to vow never to experience the same feeling again but trying to take something concrete would be a challenge.
Playing the cream of the crop is not always a good idea. Brazil and Spain away from home is a proposition that is maybe too tough for all but Asia’s best, which China never really have been and Saudi Arabia no longer are. Playing big teams at home is often not that great either as the teams arrives without a lot of stars and without a great deal of motivation.
For the medium-ranked teams in Asia, a happy medium can be found. Losing heavily should not make teams scared of heading overseas but if you are going to go all the way to South Africa, a game against Chile or Paraguay may be more suitable -still a very tough test but not one that sees an entire team camped just outside its penalty area for 90 minutes. Instead of visiting Spain just when they are getting ready to start a World Cup qualification campaign, more suitable opposition could have been found in Europe. A trip to Africa to play some of the continent’s best in tough conditions would have been an option and one much closer and cheaper.
Arranging games against teams that are better is always a good idea. When they are a lot better then care should be taken to ensure that there is something positive can be obtained and when they are the very best around, well, sometimes giving up on the glamour is a good idea.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.