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

Another title, now Ghangzhou look ahead to the opportunity of 2021

THERE’S LITTLE doubt that China’s most high-profile and successful club is Ghangzhou Evergrande Taobao, who lifted their eighth Chinese Super League title at the start of December 2019. Ghangzhou are not only China’s most celebrated club, they are arguably the noisiest across the Asia Pacific region.

The 16th Chinese Super League championship race was a tense, problematical affair, probably the hardest title win Ghangzhou have endured among their triumphs. It was not until the final game of the season they clinched the top prize, finishing two points ahead of Beijing Guoan.

The campaign was bizarre in places, with Guangzhou relieving coach Fabio Cannavaro, of his post in October as punishment for poor performance, only for the Italian World Cup winner to return in November. This suspension amounted to a very public reprimand, underlining that China has very particular ways of conducting business, as the recent Mesut Özil saga revealed. Cannavaro was accused of being “weak” and slow to respond to problems.

He was expected to lose his job and names like José Mourinho were being linked to the club, but he survived the wave of speculation and his somewhat humiliating punishment. Now, despite rumours that he will be looking to return to Europe and a job in Italy, he is talking about staying in China. “I hope to reduce the average age of the team, get in better replacements and continue to provide talent for the national team,” he recently said. The last part of that quote is very relevant as clubs are bound to providing talent for the China national XI. Even if they don’t mean it, they have to say it publically.

It would seem unlikely that Guangzhou will throw money around as they have in the past. Back in 2016, they created a stir when they spent € 42 milllion on Jackson Martinez and more recently, they tabled a similar amount for Paulinho and € 19 million on Talisca.

But there has been a change of stance in China, primarily because the government has issued a caution about clubs bringing too many mercenaries to the Super League. There is also a big levy on overseas signings. Furthermore, China’s economy, which has been expanding at a fast rate for the past decade, has started to slow – in the third quarter of 2019, GDP grew by 6%, the lowest since 1992.

There are also issues closer to home for the club. In 2018, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao posted a loss of Yuan 1.8 billion, which translates to around US$ 267 million. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has limited financial deficits at US$ 46.4 million, so Guangzhou, in 2019, will need to have reduced their expenses by 50% and deficit by 80%. If they have not achieved their objectives, they will be fined by the CFA.

Brazilian football player Paulinho of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C., right, protects the ball during the 30th round match of Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) against Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

This could be a hurdle given they have a big wage bill to service, Guangzhou pay their players an average of US$ 2.2 million per annum, almost twice the league’s average. In a country where the average annual salary is just US$ 6,600 , it takes a CSL player just 2.25 days to earn the annual average wage.

Elsewhere, there have been stories that players at some clubs have not been paid on time, notably in the lower leagues. Also there has been some discontent among fans – six Beijing supporters were arrested after walking to a match (!). The CFA also caused a stir when they changed the rules concerning foreign players in mid-season.

Guangzhou were pushed all the way by Beijing Guoan, who won their first 10 games and topped the table from April to mid-July. A couple of defeats in September put pressure on the South China Tigers (their nickname) and with one game to go, Guangzhou still hadn’t shaken off Beijing Guoan. A 3-0 win at the Tianhe Stadium was enough to maintain the two point margin, despite the team from the capital winning 3-2 against Shangdong.

Guangzhou’s leading scorer was Brazilian midfielder/striker Paulinho with 19 goals, 10 behind the Chinese Super League’s top marksman, Guangzhou R&F’s Israeli striker Eran Zahavi. Paulinho, the CSL player of the year, and his team-mate Yang Liyu, were named in the team of the year.

Having regained their title, Guangzhou will have one eye on the AFC Champions League, a competition they have won twice (2013 and 2015). The draw for the group stage has already been made and they will face South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim as well as the winners of Japan’s Emperor Cup, either Vissel Kobe or Kashima Antlers. Guangzhou reached the semi-finals in 2019 and the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League seven times in eight years.

But what of the longer term? There’s more adjustments ahead for Chinese football. The CFA has announced that there will be a salary cap for incoming players, with wages capped at € 3 million, while domestic Chinese players will be capped at Yuan 10 million. The market may have become less attractive for foreign players. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s controversial plan for a world league, which would surely involve Guangzhou, is most probably a dead duck, but it is clear that changes are afoot in world football. Such projects are not based on football common sense alone  – China is one of the most important economies, so any blueprint for a global competition, financed by broadcasting as well as very wealthy sponsors, would undoubtedly call for Chinese involvement.

And then there’s the revamped 24-team FIFA World Club Cup, which is to be staged by China in 2021. This could be Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao’s chance to make a mark on the world stage, especially as the city will be one of the host venues.

Make no mistake, this a big club from a big city (population 15 million), watched by 45,000-plus people every week and backed by an owner with estimated personal wealth of US$ 30 billion. The club’s brand is the strongest in its local market and if a Chinese club is going to break into the global super bracket, it will surely be this one. Not for nothing do they have the motto, “be the best forever”.


Photo: PA