|Football Seeks Fans|
Chelsea star Didier Drogba surrounded by fans upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur this July as part of Chelsea’s preseason tour of Asia. Images: Mohd Rasfan/AFP
FIFA Club World Cup fails to get Asians excited about Asian football
The Manchester United bumper stickers, Real Madrid t-shirts and Liverpool hats that abound on the streets of Jakarta, Mumbai and Beijing illustrate how much Asia loves football. But it is a love that is seemingly reserved only for overseas teams.
Local leagues simply do not generate the excitement that the big foreign football leagues do. Given this, when two Asian clubs reached the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this week, most football fans in the region were more focused on Barcelona (Spain) and Santos (Brazil), the other two clubs left in the tournament.
The FIFA Club World Cup, held annually since 2005, includes representatives from each of FIFA’s six continental football confederations and one local club. The tournament’s global representation is intended to provide a more holistic platform for the world’s best football clubs to do battle than more established continental tournaments such as the Champions League in Europe or the Copa Libertadores in South America.
Asian Champions League winners Al-Sadd of Qatar reached the semi-finals of the Club World Cup with a 2-1 victory over African champions Esperance of Tunisia on December 11. Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol also made the semi-finals the same day, defeating Monterrey of Mexico 4-3 on penalties in front of a rowdy home crowd.
But for many fans, the real tournament did not start until Barcelona and Santos took to the pitch. The two clubs were granted automatic qualification into the semi-finals.
Some take exception to the imbalanced fervour of Asian football fans. A post on the blog, Stop EPL [English Premier League] Colonialism in Asia, earlier this year sums up the situation from a Singaporean point of view.
“If fans want to see improvement in the S-League [Singapore’s Professional Football League], they have to be the change themselves and select an S-League team to support,” the post said. “They can buy match tickets, club merchandise and help spread the word about their favourite football club.”
“And hopefully with this initiative, we may one day see Singapore move away from EPL colonialism and stand proudly for our own S-league.”
European leagues, of course, enjoy the luxury of having the world’s best players to help sell their product. But their popularity in Asia may also be simply due to better marketing.
“One part of it goes to the success of [European Leagues]. The other part of it is the outreach and the marketing of the clubs,” said James Dorsey, a veteran journalist who blogs at The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
European clubs have successfully projected themselves as global brands, making ample use of the Asian market in the process. Most major European clubs take preseason tours of Asia, playing sold out exhibition matches against various national teams and clubs in Asia.
European leagues claim that these tours aid the growth of Asian football.
“We’re here and we’re adding interest to the game, adding interest to football generally,” Dan Johnson, the chief spokesperson for the Barclays Premier League, told The Jakarta Post in August during this year’s preseason tours.
“I think if you can leave a legacy there as well as generating interest in the game, that’ll develop the game here and we take that very seriously.”
Others, however, are quick to point out the flaws of Johnson’s argument.
“How can a Chelsea team playing a mishmash All-Star Thai team help the local game, especially when the Thai national team is playing Palestine in a crucial World Cup qualifier?” Anthony Sutton, a football journalist for The Jakarta Postwrote.
“It may seem unimportant to Chelsea, with its big money players and its chairman and his fancy yacht, but the qualifiers are important to Thailand. By having Chelsea play in town on the same weekend, it diluted the experience.”
Some Asian football leagues enjoy a decent amount of local support. But there is little doubt that many Asian teams could market themselves more effectively. This sentiment was echoed earlier this year by Stop EPL Colonialism in Asia.
“Corruption and plain incompetence are issues in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia whilst in Singapore there has almost been an unwillingness on the part of the FAS [Football Association of Singapore] to promote their domestic S-League.”
Kelvin Leong, the senior manager of corporate communications digital media for the FAS, has a different opinion.
“We believe that there is always a following for local football and we have our marketing initiatives that help to entice the fans to keep supporting local football,” Leong told Asia360 News.
Leong, however, declined to elaborate upon the marketing initiatives of the FAS.
Some Middle Eastern clubs are certainly starting to market themselves more effectively. According to Dorsey, Al Jazira, a small club based in the United Arab Emirates, quadrupled its ticket sales after taking active steps to reach out to fans. Other clubs such as Persepolis in Iran, have massive local fan bases, which can perhaps spark broader followings beyond borders.
“These clubs have the potential of becoming — maybe not global brands — but regional brands,” Dorsey said. “If you want to market that properly, you’d probably make some inroads.”
For Middle Eastern clubs though, making those inroads in large parts of Asia may be easier said than done due to the manner in which continents are defined by FIFA.
Japan and Korea have been the nexus of Asian football for decades. They are not only the two Asian nations to have advanced beyond the group stage of the World Cup on multiple occasions, but also had the distinction of co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, which saw Korea make the semi-finals. Indeed, when Al-Sadd defeated Korean club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 4-2 on penalties in the Asian Champions League Final on November 5, they became the first club outside Japan or Korea to win the title.
Though some Middle Eastern nations have made waves on the international scene, they are generally not viewed by football fans as “Asian”.
“The Middle East has never projected itself that way as such,” Dorsey told Asia360 News.
“They [Japanese fans at the Club World Cup] would probably not [cheer for Al-Sadd] because of the Asian perception that the Middle East is not Asia.”