Why AFCON and the Asian Cup Matter

AFCON, Asian Cup, Eurocentrism, continental football, media bias, international football, football fans, South Korean, football fandom, football culture
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

The World Cup comes around every four years. For a greedy international football fan like me, that’s four years too long. I can somewhat satisfy those cravings through continental tournaments like the Euros, Asian Cup, and AFCON. 

To casual football fans, the most prominent continental tournament is the European Championships, which are taking place in Germany this summer. Major broadcasters such as ESPN and Fox Sports are going to plaster their audiences with Euro coverage. However, what’s ticking me off is the lack of attention given to the Asian Cup and AFCON. 

Western football outlets seem more concerned about how the Asian and African players leaving their club teams for one month will affect the league tables, instead of what winning one of those trophies would mean for the players. 

From the perspective of a minority, this isn’t surprising, but it’s still incredibly frustrating. It seems to be another reminder that the African and Asian fans don’t matter as much as the European ones. 

Let me be clear, the Asian Cup and AFCON are a BIG DEAL. Realistically speaking, African and Korean teams currently cannot win World Cups, which makes these continental tournaments the Holy Grail. For Son Heung-min and Mohammed Salah, the chance to win silverware would cement their legacies as the respective Asian and African GOATS. 

That’s why it is crazy for Western reporters to treat the Asian Cup and AFCON with such disdain. Former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright, the son of Jamaican parents, noted in 2021 that media coverage of European-based players travelling to the AFCON was  “disrespectful” and  “tinged with racism”. Wright said, ‘You are getting journalists asking players… players getting asked if they will be honouring the call-ups to their national teams. Imagine if that was an English player representing the Three Lions. Can you imagine the furore?’

This snobbish elitism seeps into the mentalities of average fans as well. Over the past month, I’ve seen multiple tweets from Tottenham Hotspur fans suggesting that Son Heung-min should skip the Asian Cup to help Spurs in their race for the top four. One misguided fan even suggested that South Korea was good enough to win the Asian Cup (we haven’t won the tournament since 1960) without Son. Need I remind Spurs fans that Son Heung-min cried in front of former President Moon Jae-in after losing a group stage match to Mexico at the 2018 FIFA World Cup? Asking Son to skip the Asian Cup would be like asking him to cut off one of his legs. 

Another football account tweeted an offensive meme comparing the Asian Cup to a mentally challenged monster. It’s sentiments like these that remind not just players of colour, but also fans of colour that our inclusion in the game is always conditional. We must be two times more knowledgeable and two times more talented to be  “accepted”’.

As the son of Asian immigrants to America, any game involving the South Korean national team was a source of pride because it was a space where I wasn’t judged for the colour of my skin. It was a space where members of the Korean diaspora could gather together, regardless of our traumas, to scream, cry, and yell. It’s a place of peace that will always be sacred. 

Nearly 18 million Asian Americans live in the United States and we’re the fastest growing demographic in the country. Yet the majority of culture, which includes sports like football, caters to a white audience. The majority of  “pundits” I’ve seen appearing on TV breaking down the Asian Cup have been white faces. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a non-Asian analysing the AFC if they’re knowledgeable, but why can’t we give opportunities to Asian football pundits to break down their own countries? The excuse that there aren’t enough of us who speak English well is not factual. These companies need to do a better job of scouring the Internet for talented Asian pundits. 

To be fair, I understand why this Eurocentrism exists to a certain extent. The old world still has the most resources and money to control the narrative. However, that doesn’t mean we should let the media get away with blatant laziness. 

Tell Mohamed Salah, who grew up in a small Egyptian town, travelling by bus for nine hours every day to training, that he should skip the AFCON because Liverpool needs him to stay at the top of the Premier League table. 

Tell Lee Kang-in who moved to Spain at the age of 10, and was constantly referred to as “Chino” by his Mallorca manager Javier Aguirre, that he should skip the Asian Cup so PSG can win the farmers league known as Ligue One.

Tell Son Heung-min, who hasn’t won a trophy with the South Korean national team, that he should stay at Tottenham instead of trying to win the Asian Cup, which would cement his status as the greatest Korean footballer of all time.  

The fact of the matter is that Asian and African football has grown by leaps and bounds since the 21st century. 

Three sides from the Asian Football Confederation reached the round of 16 at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The six Asian sides in Qatar won seven matches and drew one, giving them an average of 3.67 points per team, the best-ever performance for Asia in the group stages of the World Cup. 

Two African sides, Morocco and Senegal, made it to the round of 16, equalling Africa’s best-ever group stage performance from 2014 when Nigeria and Algeria made the knockouts. And I think we all remember Morocco’s insane run to the semi-finals in Qatar when they took down the likes of Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. 

Yet, despite the on-field results, the respect hasn’t come—and it won’t until more people of colour are in positions of power. We need more Asian and African coaches, players, and pundits to change the landscape. Until then, I’m aware this article will probably wind up as another angry piece about the unfair treatment of minorities. 

However, I won’t let the idiotic sentiments of European snobs take away from my love for African and Asian football. The AFCON and Asian Cup will be something special, and you can bet I’ll be one of millions of people eagerly following our beautiful game. 

Albert Kim

Albert Kim is a Korean American writer/ football analyst toiling in Seoul, SK. His work has appeared on FIFA Plus, Al-Jazeera, and Netflix. Besides the USMNT and South Korean national team, he is a devoted follower of the church of Oliver Kahn and FC Bayern Munchen. His love for football was cultivated during the 2002 World Cup. He apologizes to the Italian people for the golden goal in the round of 16. Follow him on Twitter @Albert_Kim2022 and Insta @albertkim711