Asia has overtaken Africa and now looks the more likely continent to produce a World Cup-winning team, according to the former England goalkeeper David James.
Speaking at the World Football Forum in Changsha, James said Asia’s financial clout and passion would propel it to the forefront of the game in the coming decades.
“I genuinely think that an Asian country has got a better chance of winning the World Cup than an African one,” the former Liverpool goalkeeper said.
“When I was growing up in the Nineties, it was all about how Africa was going to be the next continent to win the World Cup. I can’t see it.”
James was referring to Brazilian legend Pele’s famous prediction that an African team would win the World Cup before 2000, which turned out to be wide of the mark.
No African team has made it past the quarter-finals, and although Asian sides flopped at the last World Cup in 2014, with none reaching the knock-out rounds, South Korea reached the semis on home soil in 2002.
Currently, Asia’s top-ranked team is Iran at 28, while South Korea, Japan and Australia are the others inside the world’s top 50.
But James, whose CV includes playing for the Indian Super League’s Kerala Blasters, said China and even India — ranked 81st and 100th respectively — could emerge as World Cup contenders.
“I think there’s such fertile soil (in Asia). Maybe the financial aspects of China provide that,” said James, 46, who made 53 England appearances.
“But I think with the enthusiasm for football in India, plus there is obviously a financial potential to back them, I think the opportunity is massive, massive.
“There’s something like two-and-a-half billion people if you take the two countries, it’s a third of the world’s population.”
The World Cup will return to the Asian confederation at Qatar 2022, and China is actively considering a bid to host the tournament, probably in the 2030s.
China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on foreign players and coaches after an official decree that the country hopes to host and win the World Cup.
But James said he was also optimistic for India, recalling crowds of 50,000 turning up to watch Kerala Blasters.
India will also be in the limelight later this year when it hosts the U17 World Cup, its biggest football tournament to date.
“There’s a better infrastructure in China at the moment. India’s got a bit of a way to catch up with that but it’s not something that will take 30 years to achieve,” James said.
“The technology within football, the understanding of building pitches and training facilities, that’s one thing. To compete you need these things, but to improve you need better coaching.
“And it’s whether or not the investment is made into the coaching side of things either in China or in India.”
James said there was “no reason” why Asia’s national teams wouldn’t be at the same level as their European rivals 30 years from now.
“With the size of the countries… somewhere you can find the perfect areas for a super camp or whatever. I’m enthusiastic for Asia,” he said.
But he warned: “You can’t have the best national team and the best domestic league… You can’t have both.
“It’s a difficult beast -– it’s almost like the dog with a bone looking at his reflection in the pond,” he said, quoting one of Aesop’s fables.
“What do you go for?”