“By the end of the next decade, there will be a split in Asian football from east to west.”

This was the stark statement made back in January 2015. The Asian Cup was being hosted in Canberra in Australia, and the forecaster was a leading figure in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Specifically, the commentator was from the Western side of the continent.

Almost eight years on, we are roughly halfway through the period of his prediction and while there has yet been no formal divide, 2022 could become a turning point for the future of Asian football.

The reasons can be partly attributed to the ongoing Qatar World Cup, which is being played in the Middle East for the first time, but are primarily the result of long-standing tensions between members. 

At the moment, there are 47 members in the AFC. The organisation’s geographic reach is vast, stretching from Beirut in the west all the way down to Sydney in the east. Formed in 1954, Australia only entered in 2006, while Israel was kicked out in the 1970s. It’s as sprawling as it is diverse, encompasses as many different cultures, languages and ways of life as football teams.

 “The organisation’s geographic reach is vast, stretching from Beirut in the west all the way down to Sydney in the east”

Troubled ties

For a long time, there has been an uneasy relationship between the big East Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea and the Arab nations to the west. The former felt that they had been driving Asian football forward – appearing and performing well at World Cups, winning the Asian Champions League and sending players to the big leagues of Europe – but the western nations still had more influence at a political level.

To balance the two opposing power centres, the AFC’s headquarters are in Kuala Lumpur and the organisation’s general secretary has traditionally been Malaysian.

Yet, discounting the two-year tenure of Chinese Zhang Jilong, who was officially given the role temporarily in 2011 after Mohammed bin Hamman of Qatar was removed after allegations of corruption, you have to go back to 1958 to the last AFC president, the organisation’s most powerful position, from the eastern side.

Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, has been in place as the confederation’s president since 2013 and is set to be elected unopposed next February for a fourth term in power.

He has been criticised for spending as little time as possible in Malaysia with officials from elsewhere complaining that the real centre of power in Asian football is Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

Asian Cup row

Tensions between the two sides have been simmering for decades, and recently boiled over in October. China had been selected to host the 2023 Asian Cup, but due to the government’s ‘zero-covid’ policy, Beijing pulled out in May.

That led the AFC scrambling to find a substitute, and Japan and South Korea were sounded out with the latter deciding to bid.

Qatar, host of the 2011 tournament, and Indonesia did the same, but most thought the decision would go to Seoul, who hadn’t hosted the competition since 1960. Yet the AFC handed it to Qatar, and Korea believed the decision to award it to Doha came down to guaranteeing more money for the confederation.

“Qatar has promised huge financial support, such as the participation of additional sponsors by its own companies in the AFC, which is currently suffering from a loss due to COVID-19, a large-scale broadcasting rights contract with its own broadcasting company, and support for operating expenses of the Asian Cup,” the Korea Football Association (KFA) said in a statement.

“It is judged that the unconventional offensive and support of Middle Eastern countries trying to take the lead in Asian football also influenced the situation,” they added, pointing out that Saudi Arabia is expected to be given hosting rights for 2027.

The KFA said it would take time to reflect but behind the scenes, officials have raised questions as to whether it is best to break away from what they see as an Arab-dominated confederation, and there is sympathy for this from elsewhere in the Eastern region.

Even without such politics and hostilities, there has long been a debate as to whether a split may be best, not just for Asia, but for world football.

For the Arab nations in the confederation, a split could allow them to join with their brothers in North Africa. Culturally, as well as geographically, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the rest could link up with Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and others to form a MENA confederation.

“Even without such politics and hostilities, there has long been a debate as to whether a split may be best, not just for Asia, but for world football”

After all, there is nothing to link Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Baghdad except for football.

It has also been suggested that the east could then subsume Oceania, the smallest confederation with just 13 members, the biggest of which is New Zealand, and one that FIFA does not really know what to do with.

In the past, discussions and debates about a potential split inevitably focused on World Cup qualifying spots as another topic of contention. With Asia traditionally having just four automatic spots, there wasn’t much to divide. The expansion to eight from 2026 onwards makes the situation much more palatable.

The 2022 World Cup

The first World Cup in the Arab world may give the issue a pull from the west to add to the push from the east. Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have impressed in Qatar and been supported by tens of thousands of fans who have descended on Doha to show the world what football means to the region.

This World Cup has been a celebration of shared Arab football culture. The disproportionate criticism that Qatar has received in parts of the international media has, to an extent, helped to create solidarity with the host nation from elsewhere in the region and beyond.

With the Arab Cup successfully reborn last year and played in Qatar – and used to prepare for the World Cup – and the Arab Champions League being pushed, there is more and more of a sense that a MENA confederation already exists informally.

Conversations have started even if there is a long way to go. There is, however, enough disquiet in the east and enough of a growing sense in the west of the continent of an Arab football culture that would be best served by coming together to ensure that this is a story that won’t be going away just yet.

John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times,  as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden