Windfall lays the basis for stronger East Asian region
The East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) has estimated its inaugural regional tournament, won by South Korea on goal difference, has generated in the region of US$8 million in income.
The organisation, formed at the start of last year's World Cup, survived the Sars-enforced cancellation of the original finals and their president Shunichiro Okano says the 150,000 fans who watched the three days of matches involving the hosts Japan, Korea, China and Hong Kong have helped generate enough funds for the EAFF to start their planned development work.
'If you want to do anything we need marketing and finance, without the money we have only dreams,' said Okano, the 72-year-old former Japanese national player and coach who stood down as president of the Japan Football Association (JFA) in 2002.
'To realise these dreams we needed money and this competition is the first step. I'm very happy to say the competition has been very, very successful. Over 41,500 fans for the first matches, more than 45,000 for the second and 63,000 in Yokohama.
'We had a safe but nothing inside it. We'd already spent money on the original tournament but then Sars came. Fortunately the sponsors and TV companies gave us help and the same sponsors came back.'
Okano said the uncertainty caused by Sars had delayed any detailed planning, but surprisingly was unable to say what the long-term goals of the EAFF were, beyond staging that tournament biennially.
'To this day I don't know what income we'll get. We need budgets. Now we'll be able to find out the final income and next year we'll be able to plan the second step. The tournament will be held every two years; the next one will be in either China or South Korea.
'The Japanese sponsors and TV broadcasters have promised to continue their involvement for the next five years. We are now just planning our activities. The top activity is the championship, but I want to have tournaments for kids and coaching and referees' courses and if possible administration courses as well - that's very important in today's football. We're aiming to organise Under-15 and Under-18 tournaments.'
The competition has, with the exception of Wednesday's disappointing first-half performance against China, been a massive shot in the arm for the Hong Kong national team and the preliminary round was just as enthusiastically received by East Asia's minnows Guam, Mongolia and Macau, while Taiwan are now thought to be preparing plans for their domestic league.
'We had to do something for our friends,' said Okano, whose playing career began in an era when Japan were considered small fray by the then powerful Southeast Asian countries. 'We want to create new football. That's our slogan. Actually we received in the past a lot of help from our football friends in Asia.
'South Korea has been a good rival and China is coming up, and of course England, Brazil and Germany have given us a lot of help. Now we want to pass on that kindness. We were able to organise a World Cup, but now we should look at our neighbours.'
However, the formation of the EAFF has a more pragmatic motivation that has become more urgent since the appointment of Qatar's Mohammed bin Hammam as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2002 pushed the balance of power in the continent towards the west.
The JFA has already made one veiled threat that it might look to breakaway from the AFC in a lengthy letter protesting proposed changes to the Confederation's constitution.
'The reason why we established this organisation is that the East should be united and should have one voice,' Okano admitted. 'The way the AFC is taking is fundamentally not bad, but in each zone there are many different circumstances around football. This is the decision of the AFC ... [but] we want to give our own ideas to implement our programme.'
Japan's friends, the lesser nations that Hong Kong heads, desperately need help. But the fragile alliance of the big three nations, also needs the smaller nations' votes to establish a firmer foothold in the power politics of international football.