Hammam urges Asia to raise the stakes after China's Cup flop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am

Size doesn't matter for Mohamed bin Hammam. The president of the Asian Football Confederation is more concerned about quality. And although he is disappointed at China's absence in the final round of Asian qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, he believes the cream has risen to the top.

'Personally, I'm a 100 per cent disappointed that China's 2010 World Cup hopes have ended,' said Hammam, who was in Hong Kong to put his signature to a lucrative four-year sponsorship programme between the Asian governing body and Dutch financial institution ING.

'China is more than one-third of Asia. But then all Asian nations, big and small, have the same dream - to be part of the World Cup,' Hammam said. 'We all want to see the best from Asia at the World Cup. China will have to rebuild their football and hope for better things in 2014.'

Eight countries have already qualified for the fourth and final round. They are Australia, Bahrain, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. They will be joined by two more. The 10 teams will vie for the potential five places available for Asia in South Africa.

The last two places for the final qualifying round will be decided today - Asian Cup champions Iraq taking on Hammam's countrymen from Qatar, needing a win or a draw to go through, while United Arab Emirates play Syria.

China missed out on the chance of making only their second appearance at a World Cup - they played in the 2002 edition - when they went down 2-1 to Iraq in Tianjin last Saturday. Their exit came with a game to spare. The mainland will play for pride in a dead rubber against Australia in Sydney today. Hammam has a dream that one day Asia can hold its own with Europe. He strongly believes the future lies in Asia and that it starts with China.

'China's absence at the next World Cup is not a setback. It will take time for them to develop. We started the Vision China programme three years ago and it is progressing very well at the grass-roots level but this is a long-term project and it will take time for results,' Hammam said.

Soon after he became AFC president in 2002, Hammam put in motion a scheme called Vision Asia to grow the game from the grass roots in the world's most populous continent. It got off the ground in 2005 with eight countries - China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Oman, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh. Vision China was launched in Qingdao.

'We started with five cities in China. This is nothing when you consider that there are 650 cities in the country with a total population of 1.3 billion.

'By 2012, our target is to expand the programme to 15 cities with an estimated 150 million people.' Hammam said.

Recently labelled as the third most powerful man in football by World Soccer magazine - behind Fifa president Sepp Blatter and Uefa boss Michel Platini - Hammam believes the only way Asia can progress rapidly is for all countries to have professional leagues.

'At the moment we look at Europe to see the best football in the world. My dream is to see it happen right here in Asia. I want us to attract the world's best players and coaches to Asia.

'We need to build up our clubs, make them more professional. At the moment most countries are not ready and we have got to change this mindset. We only have 10 countries that can accommodate a fully professional league,' Hammam said.

Next year's Asian Champions League will only be open to clubs which come from a professional league. Sadly Hong Kong won't be part of it. This city is not ready.

Brian Leung Hung-tak, chairman of the Hong Kong Football Association, wants to piggyback on China. 'Our hope is that one day we can have a team playing in the Chinese professional league. To have our own league will be impossible without the support of the commercial sector.'

AFC partners ING, who also back the Dutch national team, have plenty of faith in Asian football. 'The popularity of Asian football is growing,' said executive board member Hans van der Noordaa.

But the game is not growing fast enough for Hammam, who is impatient for Asia to rule the world of football. While it will take time on the playing front, Hammam wants the region to be at the forefront in 2018 and host the World Cup.

'I would like to see the World Cup back in Asia in 2018. We have a number of countries who are interested in bidding and anyone of them can host it successfully,' Hammam said.

Australia, China, Japan and his own Qatar have indicated they are interested in hosting world soccer's main event.

They could be up against countries like England, Mexico, Russia, the US, Greece, Portugal to name a few.

On a personal level, Hammam is content to play second fiddle to Blatter.

This week he ruled out running for the Fifa presidency in 2011, saying he will back Blatter for a third term.

'The world needs his experience,' Hammam said.

'I will support him as I always do.'

He can bide his time - while he waits for Asia to get its act together.