May 6, 2011

Why Asian Football Is So Delicate

This fantastic article was on the front of ESPN Soccernet today. The title, "Liverpool hoping for Asian tonic",  is supremely underwhelming, as it attempts to tie in Liverpool's current form, Manchester United and the Big Four, Asian academies, sponsorship, Barcelona's visit, and selling shirts.

To be honest, the opportunities and current situation of Asian football do encompass all those things, and many more. The other day, I was talking to a Kiva volunteer, a Brit who spent time in Thailand. One of the things he told me was that the presence of English soccer was mindblowing, and it was Liverpool (and the rest of the Big Four) who are wildly popular. 

At first I would think this has to do with ancient colonialism, and that perhaps in countries like Korea, Thailand, China, and Vietnam, the Premier League is the biggest because there are British nationals watching in British style pubs in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, etc. Of all the international influence, it's the old Union Jack that trumps the American style sports icons of glitz and glamour. In China particularly, you see blown up wall murals of Lebron James in the Nike stores, but walk over to the next section of the store, and it's all Nike soccer. I imagine in Korea and Japan, with other sports like baseball and basketball rapidly growing, it's very similar and soccer still maintains the highest level of popularity and marketability.

Of course, it could be simply that the EPL is always on TV. Whether it's some sort of television rights deal that always has EPL broadcast in Asia, or that La Liga is too stingy and charges too high a price to broadcast games internationally, it is true that you can always catch some sort of game, whether it's Manchester United and Stoke, or Liverpool and Blackpool, there's constant exposure for Asian fans. Which is huge, because even though every country has it's own domestic league (J-League, K-League, Thailand Premier League), all of them in various stages of development, the reality is that most people would rather support and watch the EPL teams that are winning it all in Europe. 

The question is why? All obvious indications point to the fact that the EPL is hands down one of the top leagues in the world, and the level of competition between the lowest team in the EPL and the best domestic clubs in Asia is still a huge disparity. Considering that in the past several World Cups, Japan and Korea have been performing better than England's national team, the level of play in Asia is as rapidly growing as is the hunger from fans who desire soccer at that level. The number of names of young 20-something Asian prodigies is at an all time high, and more and more professional teams are taking this into account with successful recruiting specifically from Japan and Korea. 

A very curious comparison is with soccer in America. The development of Japan and Korea's domestic leagues started a little bit after MLS was first incarnated, and it is interesting to compare the development and changes of each at different times. While Asian leagues have been putting more investment into infrastructure and improving the state of the game (China's massive corruption), America has been seeking to first bring the public status and perception of the league on par with the NFL and NBA by bringing in massive stars, specifically from England. By most judgements, both Asia and America are about on par in terms of current playing ability, and interestingly, future potential. But the cool part is to examine how different leagues took different approaches. Sure, at a certain point, every league needs several big name signings, such as with Robbie Fowler's move to Australia's A-League, in order to continue the pace of growth and reach a higher level of competition. But the question with MLS, and thus many developing leagues like the A, K, J, and C leagues, is a fundamental one. Will MLS's growth and success be measured when they are finally able to compete with teams like AC Milan, Real Madrid, and Manchester United and prove themselves on the world stage by winning the World Cup? Or will it be successful when soccer is finally accepted as a true American sport. Depending on who you ask, you'll get different answers on which outcome is impossible to achieve.

The question is similar for developing soccer in Asia. When will Asian soccer be considered truly great? When Asian stars fill the rosters for the world's greatest clubs? Or when the domestic leagues have developed into something that their own neighbors and citizens would be willing to root for? This is one of the most important things that people (read: FIFA) need to realize, that the benchmark that we set for these countries has to come from somewhere, whether it's objective success (winning the Cup), or an objective number of tabloid covers on Park Ji-Sung's latest internal scandal/underage prostitute controversy/shooting a teammate in the face. Because while one or another of these scenarios may be impossible in some Asian countries, the fact is that they all have the potential, but not until they realize it. Not until the average Asian (or even American) fan, stuck in some Anglo-cized 'pub' of English tradition, realizes that he is taking money away from his own domestic league by giving Sky Sports or ITV 90 minutes of his attention, that this potential exists only on paper. I am not saying that Liverpool, Barcelona, and Manchester United are sucking the blood and money dry out of each Asian fan they trick into buying shirts and coming out in droves for 'tours' and 'friendlies', but it's something close to that. 

A weird analogy that most people will understand is that it's like the elementary school playground when you were younger. Depending on if you were a boy or girl (we'll do boy), there was always that one cool kid who everyone looked up to. And just like everyone else, you followed his every move on the playground with admiration and curiosity. Only little did you realize, that all the time you wasted idolizing the kid, who more often than not was little more than an empty-headed idiot, you could have spent realizing the confidence you had stored somewhere deep inside. Similarly (if you want to do this the other way too), there were the girls who developed 'early', and therefore got all the attention. But at some point, the field evens out, and the good ones, well they most likely were not the ones who were fawned over and spoiled throughout their lives. I'm talking about inner beauty here.

It seems weird to suddenly compare China as a little kid with all this potential inside, and the EPL, Serie A, and La Liga as spoiled kids who have all the money, and likewise, bad behavior, but it makes sense. Because it's the countries like China, Turkey, Indonesia, and the USA, that benefit by having the established teams and leagues show them how it is done, but I think at some point, a game-changer comes along every now and then, and we might just get back to the original meeting of the beautiful game in all it's simple and intended glory.

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