While the EPL booms, SE Asia goes backwards

Domestic fare is unpalatable, so fans can be forgiven for feasting on European teams

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:32pm

The money season is officially upon us. Of course, when you have revenues in excess of US$4 billion as the English Premier League did this past year then it is always money season. But here in this part of Asia the cash grab is even more pronounced.

When the likes of Manchester City, Tottenham and Sunderland kick off the Barclays Asia Trophy at Hong Kong Stadium tonight, they will not be the only Premier League teams in the region. All the big boys are here.

If we are not careful, football may develop into a game of greed - a trend I shall vigorously oppose

League champions Manchester United played in Japan last night after wowing Bangkok and will be in Hong Kong on Monday, while Arsenal have visited Indonesia and Vietnam and are in Japan this week. Chelsea have appeared in Thailand and Malaysia, and will be in Indonesia tomorrow, while Liverpool have also visited Jakarta and will be in Bangkok on Sunday

These are heady times for EPL fans in Southeast Asia and it's interesting to revisit comments made some 10 years ago by the head of Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in regards to Europe's pillaging of Asian resources and revenues.

Fifa supremo Sepp Blatter said in 2003 that Europe's top clubs "conduct themselves increasingly as neo-colonialists who do not give a damn about heritage and culture".

He added: "If we are not careful, football may develop into a game of greed - a trend I shall vigorously oppose."

Now stop laughing for a moment and ignore the fact that Blatter is one of the most scandal ridden and vilified sporting officials of our modern era whose hubris and greed are of legendary proportions.

Echoing his comments at the time was AFC boss Peter Velappan, who called Real Madrid "bloodsuckers" for extorting huge appearance fees out of Asian promoters, while adding that the blanket coverage given the EPL by broadcasters in Asia would hinder the game's development here.

Ten years on, we now have a good idea of whether these claims are true or not and either Velappan is very prescient or very naïve. Despite the fact that football is far and away the most popular sport and the EPL is far and away the most popular league in all of these countries, their national teams are a woeful embarrassment.

And yet no one, including Velappan, who was the AFC's general secretary from 1978 to 2007, seems particularly embarrassed. Thailand has 67 million people and is at 138 in Fifa's world rankings, six spots behind St Vincent and The Grenadines with a population of 120,000, which is equal to about a five-block radius in Bangkok. Vietnam is 145, Hong Kong 148, Malaysia 159 and Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world at 237 million, is ranked number 168.

It takes time, it takes effort, it takes foresight and it takes courage to properly build and nurture the type of sporting culture that produces a spate of world-class athletes.

Southeast Asia is so far behind the curve that only drastic measures could help. But they will not be coming any time soon because the level of corruption is socially endemic.

When Chelsea played in Bangkok last week, there was the traditional parade of players marching out on to the pitch with youngsters. Leading the pack was Chelsea captain John Terry walking hand in hand with the son of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It may have appeared shameless on an unprecedented level, but it was business as usual in Thailand, just as it is in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and yes, Hong Kong.

It is one thing to rig your judicial, political, financial and legal systems in many of these countries to accommodate unbridled corruption and greed. But in sports, we are results oriented and we do keep score.

There are rules to be followed and while the referees and umpires who enforce them have occasionally been bribed, most notably here in Asia, there is still more than a whiff of a level playing field.

When you keep appointing unaccountable flunkies to run your national sporting bodies, the results are predictable. Come World Cup time, Southeast Asian teams are repeatedly nowhere to be found and that is certainly not the fault of the EPL.

And it is most certainly not the fault of the fans either that they can't stomach the domestic fare on offer. Most fans know that in their lifetime we will not see the likes of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong or Vietnam in the World Cup.

Still, this part of Asia is the largest growing consumer bloc in the world and that is not such a bad thing because there is a dearth of consumers globally. The Europeans want your money because they know you have it. They also know you are absolutely starved for live, quality football. So spend your hard-earned cash wisely, Asia. Enjoy some premier footy in person for once.