How long until the Asian powerhouse flexes its muscles?

ASIA is the world’s biggest football stadium, with half the world’s fanbase. The potential of the region is enormous, with a growing middle class and economies that can grow faster than many mature markets. In footballing terms, the game is fast-evolving in China, India, South Korea and Japan, along with other countries, and with the next World Cup in the region, the focus on Asia will continue to expand.

In a week in which the UK’s Guardian newspaper asked why there are so few Asian footballers in Britain, the World Football Summit underlined the exciting possibilities for the game in a very diverse and multi-cultural part of the world.

In 2002, the World Cup was held jointly in South Korea and Japan. South Korea reached the semi-finals and Japan the last 16. It was a difficult World Cup in terms of climate and some of the traditional heavyweights underperformed, but there could be no doubting the enthusiasm for the competition in Asia and the quality of some of the continent’s players.

Since 2002, Asia has not performed particularly well in four World Cups and only Japan and South Korea have ventured beyond the group phase. That said, South Korea have produced some good players, notably Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min, who has made his mark in the Premier and is valued at around £75 million.

Son’s success has challenged the argument that Asian players do not have the strength to play in the physical Premier League. There have been other reasons – mostly based on stereotyping and cliché – that Asian youngsters had no interest in the game and preferred cricket. According to the Guardian, 60% of British Bangladeshi young boys play football, 47% of British Indians and 36% of British Pakistanis. The issue of integration has also been used as an excuse, but going way back to the 1950s and 1960s, young Asians tried to join sports clubs with little success. In some cases, Asians formed their own football teams.

Asians are fanatical about football and supporters clubs of all the major European clubs proliferate the region. According to Statista, the most popular club in China is Real Madrid with 127 million supporters with Manchester United second with 107 million.

As clubs build global franchises, Asia continues to be a sweet spot for gaining new fans. Indeed, at the World Football Summit, Ned Negus of Football Marketing Asia noted: “We see sponsors around the world clambering to communicate via both local and international assets with those fans. Many sponsoring decisions, here but also in Europe, are based on perceived value in Asia.”

But Asian fans also provide passionate backing for their own clubs. In Japan, for example, the average J-League crowd was over 20,000 in 2019 with teams like Urawa Reds and FC Tokyo drawing over 30,000 per game. South Korea’s top division, the K-League, has smaller crowds, but their clubs fare well on the international stage. In India, social media is an important reflection of growing support for clubs and the leader is Kerala Blasters, with a combined social media audience of approaching five million.

China has grabbed a lot of the headlines with its aggressive move into football, both domestically and in acquiring stakes in western clubs. The Chinese Super League (CSL) continues to attract healthy crowds (average 24,000 in 2019), but there has to be some uncertainty about the future – will the coronavirus stymie the CSL’s progress?

Both South Korea and Japan have enjoyed considerable success in the AFC Champions League. The last Korean side to win the competition was Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016, while Japan had a good run recently with Urawa and Kashima Antlers winning in 2017 and 2018 respectively, before Urawa lost in the 2019 final against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal.

The Asian Cup, the region’s equivalent of the European Championship and Copa America, was expanded in 2019 to 24 teams. The Asian Football Confederation believes the development of the game is facilitated by major tournaments and making the Asian Cup bigger enables the overall quality to improve. The 2019 competition was won by Qatar, who beat Japan in the final. The host nation was the United Arab Emirates where the crowds were disappointing, averaging just 12,633 per match. The problem with the Asian Cup is that crowds fluctuate depending on the location – for example, when it has been held in the Middle East, the attendances have been poor.

If football’s future is poised to be more technology-driven and enhanced by increasing digital connectivity, then Asian football should benefit from the changes ahead. The coronavirus has underlined the true value of technology and the Asian region has hordes of football fans accustomed to technology and they are hungry for more digital interaction. This should make for a vibrant Asian football landscape, one that may yet deliver a national team that can compete with international football’s giants. For all the globalisation of the game, football is still dominated by Europe and South America. The US is trying hard to make an impact, China has ambitions, Africa is still unable to produce a consistently strong team that can get to the latter stages of the World Cup. At the moment, Asia is a huge market for commercial opportunity, but has yet to become the powerhouse it strives to be. In the current circumstances, the continent’s best chance for the big breakthrough may well be in 2022.



Photo: PA

Indian football at a tipping point

THE FUTURE OF the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League looks a little uncertain as the country’s governing bodies grapple with creating the optimal structure for the game in Asia’s third biggest economy.

While the Indian Super League continues to form new business partnerships and starts to develop young players, spectator appetite seems to be on the decline. Last season, average attendances dropped to 13,000 from a high of 27,000 in 2015. Gates have been steadily falling in the past couple of years and the latest drop means they have halved in just three years.

This aside, India has to solve the problem of two leagues running almost in competition with each other. The differential between the ISL and I-League in terms of crowds is now very small – less than 3,000. Consider that just a few seasons back, the ISL had a 20,000 advantage over the I-League, which clearly suffered from the introduction and financial clout of the new competition.

What’s happened? The ISL has stopped attracting star names and the novelty factor has worn off. Many of the big names disappointed when they did arrive in India and franchise costs started to become a little unwieldy.

For all the media attention, ISL clubs do not benefit from the broadcasting of their matches. The income from TV goes to Star India, the co-owner of the league. The financial model of many clubs is unsustainable, with wages and running costs outstripping revenues by a significant margin. The average annual wage of an ISL player is around £ 82,000 in a country where the average daily wage is the equivalent of just £ 3.

Clubs have tried to bring down expenses and the league now has a limit on foreign players in a bid to encourage the development of young talent. That hasn’t prevented foreigners from being hired – of the ISL’s 10 clubs, five are managed by Spanish coaches, two by Brits (John Gregory and Phil Brown) and one apiece from Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands.

The attendances should arguably be higher than the current level, given the size of the population in some cities. Mumbai, for example, has a population of more than 12 million, yet struggles to attract crowds above 5,000. Conversely, Jamshedpur is a city of 1.3 million but was the best supported team last season with an average of 20,000.

Despite strong investment, Indian Super League clubs have laboured in building fanbases. Commercially, big companies in Asia Pacific have shown their enthusiasm for the project – as well as Indian corporates such as Tata, Apollo and CESC, South Korea’s Kia and Qatar’s Aspire are among the league’s sponsors.

Pune City, for example, announced they were in financial difficulty earlier this year and there was talk of a merger with Mumbai. Delhi Dynamos also have major issues. It has been reported that almost every club in Indian football has financial problems.

The General Secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFA), Kushal Das, admitted there were both financial and organisational hurdles to overcome. “We need money to save Indian football. We need investors who can help sustain the financial aspect of conducting the game,” he said.

Equally concerning for Indian football is the lack of clarity about the shape of the forthcoming season. The AIFA has revealed that it wants to make the ISL the top division in India with the I-League lower down the structure. Understandably, the I-League clubs are not terribly enamoured with the idea.

At present, the I-League is the officially-recognised top division in the eyes of the Asian confederation and the league’s winners enter the Asian Champions League. The ISL, in order to protect the investments of franchise owners is a “closed league” with no relegation, whereas the I-League has conventional promotion and relegation. The ISL’s model was similar to cricket’s Indian Premier League, but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the public.

Most people accept that running two leagues is not a system that can be sustained and there is strong momentum behind merging the ISL and I-League. The Asian Football Confederation is keen for this consolidation to take place as soon as possible. Everyone is currently talking about “roadmaps” with a number of I-League clubs proposing a 20-team unified league drawn from both competitions.

Some are still optimistic – the City Football Group, Manchester City’s parent organisation, is interested in buying an Indian club in 2019 to broaden its global footprint, while there are hopes that India’s promising under-17 players will start to emerge in the ISL.

With conflict between leagues, friction with marketing and broadcasting companies and a multitude of agendas, along with the dwindling crowds, Indian football continues to be at odds with itself. The next few weeks could be vital for the future of the game in India, but it seems certain a unified approach may be the only way ahead for a country of 1.4 billion people that doesn’t just have a passion for cricket.

Photo: PA