WITH the forthcoming Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League final between Jeonbok Hyundai Motors and Al-Ain on the horizon, football in the world’s most densely populated continent comes under the microscope.

Since 2008, the global economy has been buoyed by the upward trajectory of Asia, with China and India both growing at a rapid rate. Recent concerns have focused on the sustainability of economies that may be entering bubble territory, with manic real estate construction being one of the areas of anxiety. Indeed, the volatility in the global economy over the past year or so has been partly driven by fears that China, for example, will slow so much that it will derail the financial markets. “An accident waiting to happen,” is how more than one economist has described the situation in China, which is now so interconnected that any mis-hap in Beijing will affect all major economies and markets.

From a footballing perspective, China – at the heart of the Asian game – could be creating a bubble of a different sort as vast sums of money are spent on foreign clubs and in the transfer market.

Football Benchmark, in its latest paper, AFC Leagues, where are the new tigers?, describes Asia as the sport’s rising superpower.

Until now, however, Asian nations have underperformed on the global stage. In the past, tepid displays against more developed countries was attributed to physiology, diet and a lack of natural technique. Moreover, in emerging markets, the money was not there to develop footballing talent. Many of these hurdles are being removed and Asia has become an intense region that has embraced football with great gusto.

China, of course, is leading the way in terms of investment. Football Benchmark says that interest in overseas football by Chinese investors has also been the catalyst for renewed stakeholder confidence in local competition. This has led to a RMB 8bn TV deal for Chinese Super League coverage and an average crowd of 24,000 in 2016.

While China’s rise has made the headlines, Japan – traditionally the region’s top nation – is being overshadowed by its noisy neighbour. That said, Japan still remains an example to the rest of Asia, adding a third tier to its professional structure and building strong community links. But attendances in Japan have stagnated, suggesting that it may have reached saturation level. On an international level, its teams have not made an impact in the AFC Champions League for some seasons – the last Japanese team to reach the final was Gamba Osaka in 2008. Historically, Japan has fared well in the Champions League, winning the title five times.

Japan is also under threat from South Korea, whose Jeonbok Hyundai Motors will contest the 2016 AFC Champions League final, against Al-Ain from the United Arab Emirates. This will be their third final – they won the Champions League in 2006 and were runners-up in 2011.

South Korea is the only Asian country to reach the World Cup semi-final – admittedly in 2002 when it joint-hosted the competition with Japan. Conversely, its domestic league has struggled to generate significant interest among broadcasters and fans. South Korea is the best performing country in the AFC Champions League, with 10 winners and six beaten finalists.

Jeonbok Hyundai Motors’ opponents, Al-Ain are from a league that has enjoyed good progress in recent years, but the relatively small population of the UAE 9.2 million, presents a problem for sustained growth. Al-Ain are the UAE’s most successful club, having won 12 Arabian Gulf League titles, including three in the last five years. They are the only UAE team to have won the Champions League, which they achieved in 2003.

Football Benchmark notes that the central and western Asian region does not generally draw big crowds, but there are examples where local fervour brings in huge attendances. In Saudi Arabia, clashes between Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad are played in front of 60,000 and the Tehran derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal can attract 100,000.

Teams from this segment of Asia fare well in the AFC Champions League and since 2002, when the current format was introduced, the UAE has provided four finalists, Saudi Arabia five, Iran two and Syria one.

AFC Champions League- since 2003

  AFC CL winners Runners-up
UAE 2003 2005, 2015
Thailand   2003
Saudi Arabia 2004, 2005 2009, 2012, 2014
South Korea 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012 2004, 2011, 2013
Syria   2006
Japan 2007, 2008  
Iran   2007, 2010
Australia 2014 2008
Qatar 2011  
China 2013, 2015  


The big noise in Asia recently, however, concerns India and its Indian Super League (ISL). Attendances reached 26,000 per game in 2015 and although gates appear to have fallen in 2016, the country is eager to win global recognition for its growing league. FIFA have yet to recognise the ISL, but there are steps being taken to merge India’s two premier football competitions – the other league being the less heralded I-League, which was founded in 2007.

With favourable demographics, characterised by growing middle classes, the signs appear to be promising for Asia. However, as Football Benchmark outlines, developing economies often have to endure economic volatility and Asian football will always be up against more mature European football markets as well as competition from sports such as cricket. The paper concludes: “The Asian continent has demonstrated its hunger for top quality football, the question is now when and which of its leagues will be able to compete and eventually challenge the game’s traditional superpowers in the long term.”

To see Football Benchmark’s full report, click here

AFC Champions League Final: November 19 and 26 How they got to the final:

Jeonbok Hyundai Motors   Al-Ain
FC Seoul (South Korea) 5-3 on agg. Semi-Final El-Jaish (Qatar) 5-3 on agg.
Shaunghai SIPG (China) 5-0 on agg. Quarter-Final Lokomotiv Tashkent (Uzbek.) 1-0 on agg.
Melbourne Victory (Aus.) 3-2 on agg. Round of 16 Zob Ahan (Iran) 3-1 on agg.
FC Tokyo (Japan) 2-1, 3-0; Jiangsu Suning (China) 2-2, 2-3; Becamex (Vietnam) 2-0, 2-3. Group stage El-Jaish (Qatar) 1-2, 1-2; Al-Ahli (Saudi) 1-0, 2-1; Nasaf Qarshi (Uzbek.) 2-0, 1-1.