Melbourne Victory face a strong Thai side in the Asian Champions League but football in the region is struggling
There are heroes and history aplenty in south-east Asia. It’s hard to take a taxi in Bangkok after a Thailand game and not be told that the team needs a modern version of legendary 80s striker Piyapong Pue-on. Part of the deal of being a Malaysian fan is to mention ‘Super’ Mokhtar Dahari, the tree-trunk thighed terroriser of 70s and 80s defences and there are the Barcelona antics of the Filipino goal machine Paolo Alcantara that have caused many a misty-eyed Manila night.
The present is not quite as glorious. One-by-one, after falling behind those in west and east Asia, the region’s teams have fallen by the wayside en route to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia next January. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have played a combined total of 15 qualifiers and managed one point between them. Then Singapore were put out of their misery in the early days of the Chinese Year of the Horse, leaving just Malaysia with a chance of representing south-east Asia next January – and even that is far from certain. Failure would leave a region of 600 million without representation again while roughly 150 million in west Asia have eight and counting – talk about underachievement.
The sad truth is that match-fixing is the most likely topic in the international media when you read about football connected to Malaysia or Singapore. If it’s Indonesia then it is going to be about political chaos or players dying after not getting paid and being unable to afford medical treatment and if it’s Myanmar then perhaps it’s crowd trouble and if it’s another country, well, you are probably not reading about the other countries at all unless it is about another pre-season tour by an English Premier League giant.
In most of the region, you can watch pretty much every English top-tier clash live every weekend. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal (even after Saturday) shirts are common sights and exhibition games are as popular as they are expensive. In Singapore, football-lovers gather round in cafes and restaurants while ignoring the local S-League. In truth, the Premier League can be an easy target and blaming it for ASEAN ills is an oversimplification but it does cast a long shadow that makes it that little bit tougher for the local game to find a place in the sun.
Corruption is a much bigger threat. Stories of match-fixing still abound in Malaysia creating a climate of suspicion. When a T-Team goalkeeper let in a corner last season, he was immediately hauled off, then literally pushed off, the pitch by English coach Peter Butler. But incompetence and politics are just as damaging. Powerful people are attracted to the beautiful game in the region and often local media either can’t or won’t call them to account.
What has happened in Indonesia will become a case study for how not to run a country’s football scene. It remains the only ASEAN participant in a World Cup (back in 1938 under the guise of Dutch East Indies) but now has the distinction of being the country with the highest potential but the lowest standard of governance. Fifa allowing a convicted criminal to run the national FA from his prison cell and return to his office upon release was breathtaking as were the eventual results that included the setting up of rebel leagues and federations, fan deaths, player deaths, player strikes and a whole lot more. Being caught in December in the Fifa rankings by Guam, an island with less than one thousandth of Indonesia’s population, was another low.
At the national team level, repeated failure reinforces a negative tendency for south-east Asia to retreat into itself. It has become something of a football bubble with the national teams playing each other far too often outside the AFF Suzuki Cup. This biennial ASEAN tournament is far more colourful than equivalents in east, south or west Asia but few elsewhere care.
The region does not yet export players to Europe to any significant extent and those who go overseas often leave amid fanfares before returning home quickly and quietly. There are occasionally wildly ambitious plans with major clubs in the big leagues such as the Thai trio who went to Manchester City in 2007 thanks to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Exports to Australia and Melbourne victory were more successful but have not been built upon. Japan’s J-League is eager to build links with the region and Indonesian star Irfan Bachdim has just signed for top tier club Ventforet Kofu in a move that needs to be a success, even just a moderate one.
Most of what progress has been made has come at club level where money can have a swift impact and while it is sporadic, some leagues are starting to be taken seriously. When Melbourne Victory take on Muangthong United in the final play-off of the Asian Champions League, they will be meeting a well-run, well-financed and well-supported outfit. The club from just north of Bangkok are setting standards in the Thai Premier League along with Buriram United. Buriram, owned by well-known politician and former Thakshin ally, Newin Chidchob, reached the last eight of the Asian Champions League last season, disposing of Brisbane Roar in the playoffs before finishing above Japan’s Vegalta Sendai and China’s Jiangsu Sainty. Then Uzbek powerhouse Bunyodkor was seen off in the second round. It was no fluke.
The Malaysian league is also on the move, match-fixing controversies notwithstanding. While the likes of Vincent Tan and Tony Fernandes are investing money in the UK, there are others spending big in the former British colony. Pablo Aimar is with newly rich Johor DT and the Argentinian scored a beauty at the weekend even if his star-studded team lost 3-2 to a Pahang FC coached by Ron Smith and marshalled at the back by former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman. Attendances in the new season are booming.
Malaysia and Thailand provide some cause for optimism but it is not enough. Standards are rising – though the same is true of almost everywhere – with some decent young talent coming through though it comes through slower than it should, held back as it is by a lack of good coaching at youth levels. Youth development, or the lack of it, is perhaps the biggest failing of all with too much meddling, politics, short-sightedness and not enough investment in the right areas and patience.
It will happen one day. Not in time for the 2015 Asian Cup or 2018 World Cup and probably a little beyond that but one day, south east Asia is going to shake off the politics, the incompetence, the corruption, the short-sightedness and the parochialism and become a genuine power in Asia with new heroes. ( The Guardian)