Football has entered the Asian era – and the region is reinventing the global game
Over the last decade the sport has been shifting eastwards, and the rise of China and the Middle East will only cement that
There is an argument that you can divide modern football into three distinct eras.
In the 19th century, we had Football 1.0 (the European era). As the industrial revolution reached its peak, football teams across Europe were formed, formal codification took place, league structures were created and the football that many of us either know or yearn for a return to was born. Football at this stage was a product of its time: a sport drawing from socio-cultural customs and practices established decades, even centuries before; an activity that reflected a need to escape the grind of urban, industrial life. The likes of England’s Notts County and Sheffield Wednesday were typical products of the era.
The 20th century gave us Football 2.0 (the United States era). Some people will read this and question what relevance the US has had for football. After all, here is a nation that has been grappling to embrace the sport for years. Yet 20th century America has had a profound effect on football across the world. Unlike elsewhere, US sport has almost exclusively relied upon the market to dictate its development, its finances, and its commercial success. This led to the emergence of broadcasting rights packages, sponsorship deals, stadium naming rights and merchandising. All of these are now common across football, be it Arsenal and its deal with Emirates or the Premier League and its sale of TV rights in more than 200 global territories.
The 21st century, however, belongs to Football 3.0 (the Asian era). Over the last decade, football has been in the midst of a shift eastwards. Countries including Qatar and states of the United Arab Emirates have built extensive sponsorship portfolios in the West, acquired overseas clubs, and successfully bid to host international tournaments. More recently, China has increased the pace of world football’s ‘Asianisation’, with its bold, ambitious vision for football. At the same time, India has begun to take football more seriously with the inception of its Super League.
US sport continues to exert an influence on Asian sport, particularly through a focus on commercial development; likewise Europe’s football heritage, fan culture and understanding of the game is influencing developments across football’s new world. However, in Asia, there is an added dimension: the role of the state.
At one level, the state is an enabler and a funder of football (for example, see Chinese football’s bamboo revolution), although commercial independence is strongly encouraged. At another level, Asian states are utilising football for soft power and diplomatic purposes, and as a means of nation branding (Qatar is a prime example in all three cases).
This is a whole different ball game to groups of workers in industrial Europe playing football for their employer’s factory team. The world now is a very different place from the 19th century, characterised as it is by economic and political shifts and rapid technological change. As such, Asian football too is very much a product of its time, just as European football was during its formative years.
Such have been the changes in world football, that the respected British newspaper The Financial Times recently scheduled an Asian Football Summit in, somewhat appropriately, Doha. The tagline for this event: ‘Entering A New Era’.
That speakers and delegates from around the world would gather to discuss Asian football might seem anathema to many people. Yet the fact that it happened reveals something both about the changing nature of global football, and the potential for a shift in football’s current balance of power.
Furthermore, it represents a change in narrative around Asian football, something which has very rapidly emerged in recent years.
Ten years ago, when people in football talked about Asia, it was often in terms of weak participants but potentially lucrative customers. China in particular was somehow positioned as the new Klondike, and was seen as the source of potentially endless revenues for financially hungry European clubs. Since then however, Qatar has successfully bid to host the World Cup and China has instigated its current football revolution. Consequently, the narrative around Asian football has shifted, with nations cast as being globally ambitious rather than unwitting victims or distant customers.
China in the East and Qatar in the West conveniently bookend contemporary Asian football, even if they are not necessarily its common denominators. Indeed, for every Asian nation pumped-up on mineral wealth or economic prosperity, there are still numerous others whose football is underfunded, dysfunctional or, in too many cases, simply corrupt. Even so, China and Qatar provide a sense of Asian football’s current direction of travel.
At one stage, Qatar was arguably unique in the world. In seeking to build an economy that is less dependent upon mineral resource wealth, the country instigated its 2030 Vision. One of the strategic pillars underpinning the pursuit of this vision was sport, most notably football. Aside from the 2022 World Cup, this resulted in the country hosting the 2011 AFC Asian Cup as well as purchasing clubs including Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and signing sponsorship deals with others such as FC Barcelona (FCB).
At the same time, Qatar has been keen to improve the quality of its players, leading to a strategy that has embraced measures ranging from the formation of Doha’s Aspire academy, through to the purchase of Belgian club K.A.S. Eupen (which the Qataris have used to provide its players with training and experience).
For China observers, this overall approach will surely be reminiscent of the country’s own recent football focus. For Qatar at PSG, read Suning at Inter Milan; for Qatar Airways and FCB, read Wanda and Fifa. While the countries may not share the same levels of wealth or mineral resources, they do share ambitions. More importantly, they share similar strategies.
This means Qatar is no longer unique - in fact the country now almost seems like ‘China Lite’. Even so, the two nations are trailblazing on behalf of Asia: strong on vision, focused on clearly defined goals, embracing a strategic approach to football, and driven in combination by the state and private sectors.
Welcome to Football 3.0 which, like football in the 19th and 20th centuries, is very much a product of its time.
We have entered the era of change and now a question looms: by 2050, will China really have won the World Cup? Given current developments in the sport, one would be foolish to discount it.
Simon Chadwick is professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford in Manchester
This article is published in association with The Policy Forum, an academic blog at the Australian National University which publishes oped-style pieces looking at significant public policy issues from around Asia and the Pacific.