Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

It's undeniable. The money season is upon Asian soccer like never before. Here they come on the run to the rattle and the hum; Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona.

Sweat drips like a waterfall on the drenched players of the world's most famous clubs as they strive to endure the oppressive tropical summer heat.

Cash registers sing and legions of fans echo the hum. United pitch up in Macau and the following night Liverpool visit Hong Kong. In the firmament of today's international football there are four teams who have premium cachet; United, Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Put their names on any banner in Asia and wallets fly open regardless of who they play.

No marketing needed, they sell themselves. Just a notch below are clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Inter Milan. They can fill most joints out here but it might take some prodding.

Around the Pearl River Delta this summer, we have been afforded the opportunity of watching three of these teams, United, Liverpool and Bayern, with a fourth, Barcelona, on their way. The people who run the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) despise the fact that these super clubs of Europe use the region as a way to substantially pad their revenues.

The fans out here could truly care less what the AFC thinks. They line up for hours on end for an opportunity to watch the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho. It's star power of the highest order playing on teams stepped in tradition and success. Now how are you supposed to compete with that?

You can't, and yet the AFC has to. Although this past week was to be the showcase of Asian football, it was still the week that the AFC dreaded the most.

They almost had to take the Malaysian authorities to court in order to stop the country from having Manchester United play a match in Kuala Lumpur on July 27, two days after the semi-finals of the Asian Cup were to be played in the city.

The AFC wanted the sole focus to be on their showcase, and so it was as United relented and stayed away from Malaysia. As a result, a grand total of 12,500 fans showed up to watch the semi-final clash between Iraq and South Korea.

Considering the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur seats 100,000, it looked like there were only about eight people at the match.

One night earlier, Liverpool played in front of a rollicking near capacity crowd of 37,000 in Hong Kong and one night before that United maxed out in Macau with a crowd of 18,000, which could easily have been 50,000 if there were more seats.

Now, no one expected Iraq and Korea, or anyone else in the tournament for that matter, to fill 100,000 seats.

However, had United shown up it is reasonable to believe that the cavernous venue in Kuala Lumpur would have been full for the simple reason that from Tokyo to Seoul and from Macau to Guangzhou, every single seat has been occupied on their current tour.

There is also no denying that, from an attendance perspective at least, the Asian Cup has been a disaster. The home teams in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have drawn reasonable crowds.

According to the AFC, which has a remarkable ability to round off numbers and call them 'official attendance figures', 70,000 spectators turned up to watch Saudi Arabia beat Indonesia 2-1 in Jakarta.

But how do you explain a crowd of only 500 showing up four days later to watch the Saudis play Bahrain?

And although Hanoi is not as convenient a locale as Bangkok or KL, the fact that only 10,000 spectators, a quarter of the stadium's capacity, were on hand to watch an epic semi-final between two heavyweights of Asian soccer, Japan and Saudi Arabia, speaks volumes about the profile of this tournament.

Couldn't we at least paper the house by giving tickets to 20,000 schoolkids? It would make for a far more riveting presentation on TV and would also be a magnanimous gesture towards the young and largely impoverished soccer fans in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Somehow, these ideas have been lost on organisers. But if they can't even sell their game in Asia, how are they possibly going to get any sort of international buzz?

Ironically, Iraq's surprising victory over South Korea managed to catapult the Asian Cup on to the global radar. Here is a country devastated by random, sectarian violence in the midst of an unpopular American occupation.

And yet, their soccer team managed to rise above unspeakably harsh conditions to gain their first berth in the Asian Cup finals. It's truly a heart-warming story and how can you not root for Iraq to beat Saudi in the finals?

Sadly, and predictably, suicide bombers killed 50 people who were out celebrating the milestone victory.

It's an endless ordeal for Iraqis, and while a victory today would merely be temporary solace for the besieged country, at this point any solace has to be welcome.

With Saudi Arabia and Iraq, both predominantly Islamic nations, playing the final in Jakarta in the world's most populous Islamic nation, hopefully the stands will be at least half full. Both teams deserve it.

While the match-up is not nearly as sexy as a visit from Manchester United, the Asian Cup is still absolutely vital to the future of soccer in Asia.

But if the AFC is going to put any credence into their logo - The Future is Asia - they better get busy and they better get organised. Right now, the future is looking very much like the past.