Cardiff City join clubs seeing their fortune rising in the East
Thanks to an unlikely alliance between a Malaysian-Chinese businessman and a once financially crippled Welsh outfit, there is a good chance a third English Premier League club will have Asian ownership for the 2011-12 season.
Cardiff City are on the brink of promotion, occupying the second of two leading spots in the Championship, which guarantees passage to the top flight. Last season they seemed on course for the holy grail before falling at the last hurdle, losing the play-off final to Blackpool, after finishing fourth in the table.
Property tycoon Datuk Chan Tien Ghee, simply known as TG, took over as chairman last May, having joined the club's board in November 2009 on the same day the club appeared before London's High Court because of mounting debts. Tien Ghee and his business partner, Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun, worth a reported GBP800 million (HK$101 billion), own a controlling stake of Cardiff City FC.
Quite rightly, the new Asian owners are seen as saviours of a club founded in 1899 that won the 1927 FA Cup and once beat Real Madrid on the European stage. But it's become a two-way street, with the partnership also reaping benefits in their home nation.
Last weekend, long-neglected grass-roots' development received a much-needed boost with the launch of the 1Malaysia Cardiff City Junior Football League, which gives hundreds of youngsters structured competition. There are also plans to open a Cardiff-backed youth development centre, which will nurture budding talent while facilitating exchange programmes between coaches from different sides of the world.
'In Asia, we love football as much as any other continent so if our investment can take the club to higher achievements and also assist football development back home, then it can only be a good thing,' Tien Ghee said.
'If we can play our small part in giving the teams and players here a platform to perform, then we will have achieved a lot. We ultimately hope to have a physical presence with the Cardiff City FC football development centre.'
In a country where fans of Manchester United and Liverpool make up about 90 per cent of the soccer-loving population, using Cardiff City to attract promising players may seem a bit of a stretch. But Kuala Lumpur-based Asian football commentator Dez Corkhill believes it could be a match made in heaven.
'Both Cardiff and Malaysia are seen as areas with enormous potential,' Corkhill said. 'Cardiff has redeveloped itself as a city since the 1990s and as a football club over the past three years, while Malaysia is undergoing a similar transformation.
'The potential of Cardiff is truly enormous because they took 60,000 to Wembley for the play-off final and could have sold 100,000 for the FA Cup final against Portsmouth. In a football dictionary, 'sleeping giant' is spelt 'C-A-R-D-I-F-F'.'
Wales is probably better known for its rugby prowess, with 24 tournament wins putting the nation behind only England in the history of Home, Five and Six Nations competitions. But English-speaking Cardiff is strong soccer territory, with its rivalry with nearby Swansea considered one of the fiercest in the sport.
But now some home games have a distinctive Asian flavour with Malaysian flags and even some PA announcements in Bahasa Malaysia. A recent home game against Derby Country saw Crown Prince Abdullah of Pahang, the deputy president of the Malaysian FA, as the guest of honour.
So far, the long-suffering Cardiff fans are welcoming the Asian intervention because they can see the immediate benefits.
'The Cardiff City fans are very proud of their heritage and would like to see the club have a wider audience,' Tien Ghee said. 'They could see that we were sincere in our intentions very early on. The Malaysian flags were flown by the fans themselves, which was heartwarming. I am very happy to say they have embraced their Malaysian family with open arms and with what I now know is typical Welsh hospitality.'
Last month, the club's efforts were recognised when they were named the Family Club of the Year at the 2011 Football League Awards ceremony.
If the Bluebirds are promoted, they will join Birmingham (Hong Kong) and Blackburn (India) as Premier League clubs with Asian control. Manchester City have an owner from the United Arab Emriates, which is also considered part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) region.
Corkhill, who lived in Cardiff for a decade across the 1980s and '90s, says the majority of Cardiff fans don't mind having foreign bosses. 'So long as the club is well managed, the supporters will be fine,' he said. 'They have had years of mismanagement from British owners until recently. The identity of the management isn't important - but their actions are.'
Cardiff's recent results - unbeaten in their past five matches - and a well-balanced squad are impressive. Club favourites including Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra have been joined by loan signings from the premiership such as Craig Bellamy and Aaron Ramsey. But another promotion near-miss would be a serious financial setback for Cardiff's Malaysian mentors.
'When we missed out last year, yes, it was heartbreaking but I urged the fans to keep the faith,' TG said. 'Of course, it would be wonderful to both the club and Malaysia as a country. Hopefully, with God's grace, we can do our very best to achieve what we set out to do.'