Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2007, 12:00am

Bartender, pour us a couple of doubles and let's hope the booze can make some sense of a situation that might confuse Albert Einstein. Now then, a toast to the endlessly entertaining circus that has surrounded Asian soccer in the past few weeks. Just when it seemed like it was deja vu all over again, it really wasn't. Or maybe it was. Uh, no, we have indeed not been here before.

It all began when Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed bin Hammam expressed outrage that Manchester United, arguably the most popular sports team in the world, had the temerity to tour Asia this summer in another blatant cash grab.

Bin Hammam issued the same tired rhetoric that former AFC general-secretary, Peter Velappan, did about how the big European teams are merely pillaging the future of Asian soccer so they can reap untold riches, while leaving absolutely nothing behind.

It was an all-too-familiar lament and one that conveniently glosses over the fact cronyism and inept administrators, not Manchester United, is what has truly impeded the development of the game in the world's most populous continent.

But Bin Hammam took it a step further. Because United's tour coincided with this summer's Asian Cup, the continental 'showpiece', he told the English giants to steer clear of Asia entirely.

He called their games in Japan, South Korea, Macau and Malaysia 'immoral, unethical and disrespectful', before adding: 'I would say Asia for Asians.'

Bin Hammam was still not done and aimed one more pointed salvo at United. 'Cancel your tour - this is the message on behalf of the whole Asian football family, all our players, our coaches,' he said.

There was no mention, however, of Asian fans who were clearly still clamouring for United. Nonetheless, Malaysian organisers announced they would succumb to pressure and cancel United's match in Kuala Lumpur on July 27, two days before the Asian Cup final in Jakarta. Feeling emboldened, Bin Hammam cast his eyes on Japan, South Korea and Macau with hopes of also getting them to cancel.

Imagine his surprise when the Prime Minister of Malaysia came back and said a few days later the country was not cancelling anything because United's visit was part of celebrations marking 50 years of independence from Britain.

'This is what the government wants,' said Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. 'All Malaysians will enjoy the Manchester United game.'

It was a blow to the solar plexus for Bin Hammam, whose office at AFC headquarters is located, ironically, in Malaysia.

Needing to regroup, he adopted a conciliatory tone. He said there was now room for compromise and that he had never wanted the match or tour cancelled altogether. Really?

You be the judge. 'Cancel your tour - this is the message on behalf of the whole Asian football family, all our players, our coaches.'

Ah, whatever. Bin Hammam holds a quasi-political post and like any good politician, hypocrisy is his currency. He would also go on to threaten legal action over the game because he said the four countries co-hosting the Asian Cup - Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - had signed an agreement they would not host or promote any other soccer matches during the tournament.

Officials from United were invited to Malaysia to speak with AFC honchos this week in the hope of reaching a compromise. But as far as the Malaysian government was concerned, the game was still going ahead. Tourism minister Tengku Adnan Mansor personally assured United their reception would be memorable. 'The AFC's views and risks to be faced are not important,' he said this week. 'What's important is we have decided Manchester United can come to Malaysia.'

But upon examining the agreement between Malaysian authorities and the AFC, Manchester United reversed field and announced, much to the chagrin of the government, they were cancelling the game.

Any legal action concerning the agreement between organisers and the AFC would have been tried in a Malaysian courtroom. And knowing how the Malaysian government felt about this match, does anyone doubt what the result would have been? However, despite being 'immoral, unethical and disrespectful', United simply let it go. For Bin Hammam and the AFC, it seemed like a stunning victory. But it's a pyrrhic victory at best.

This is what the AFC is going to force on the football-loving population of Malaysia as a placebo to Manchester United. Iran is the highest ranking team in the Asian Cup at 41 in the world, followed by Australia (42), Japan (44) and South Korea (51). Even though the Asian Cup does not feature a team in the world's top 40, Bin Hammam believes all of Asia will drop everything to watch.

Meanwhile, Bin Hammam's beloved Qatar football association is paying 10,000 Vietnamese to wear Qatar's colours and support the team at matches in Vietnam because no one from the oil rich country wants to travel to support the squad in this epic showdown.

Well, I guess you have to start somewhere. Still, you can't legislate for common sense.

Asian consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated by the minute and they are enormously brand conscious. They want Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton, just like they want Manchester United and Real Madrid.

But despite the fact their national teams have little chance of winning, you wanted the undivided attention of fans in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia - respectively ranked 120, 139, 149 and 156 in the world - Mr Bin Hammam, and now you have it. Do you ever.