Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Asian Cup is in full swing, but where are the fans?

The 14th Asian Cup has kicked off amidst a blaze of fantastic football.

Thailand and Iraq played out a pulsating 1-1 draw, whilst the highly fancied Australia were embarrassed by a rampant Oman, despite conjuring a fortuitous 1-1 draw of their own.

Vietnam pulled off one of the greatest shocks in Asian Cup history by beating the United Arab Emirates 2-0, and Vietnam coach Alfred Riedl must have convulsed with delight at the sight of Japan throwing away a one goal lead as they drew 1-1 with Qatar.

Indonesia claimed only their second ever win in the Asian Cup finals by defeating Bahrain 2-1, whilst forgotten giants China demonstrated that they are forced to be reckoned with by hammering Malaysia 5-1.

Yet for all the glorious goals, absorbing action and hot-tempered outbursts, one thing has been missing. The fans.

Walk down any street in downtown Bangkok and you are bound to run into a fan wearing the replica shirt of an English Premier League club. Convincing those fans to turn out at a match at the Rajamangala National Stadium, however, has proved a more difficult prospect.

Five of Australia's starting eleven against Oman ply their trades in the English Premier League - not to mention goal-scorer Tim Cahill, whilst Oman goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi is on the books at Bolton Wanderers. Nevertheless the two teams ran out to the sight of thousands of empty seats for their recent clash at Rajamanagala Stadium, with the Asian Football Confederation generously suggesting an official attendance of 5,000.

Some media outlets have claimed that a lack of advertising is to blame. Yet when less than 30,000 fans turned out for Thailand's opening fixture, Thai coach Chanvit Polchovin told reporters that "the entire country was watching on their television sets." Such a claim would suggest that Thai fans are well aware that the Asian Cup is taking place in their own backyard.

The inclement weather has surely kept some fans away, with monsoonal storms rumbling over the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok like clockwork every afternoon. Rajamangala Stadium resembled a lake before Thailand's clash with Iraq, whilst the few thousand fans that turned out to watch Oman upstage Australia endured a rain-sodden trip back to their hotels.






The Australian media - never afraid to employ hyperbole, suggested that between five and ten thousand Australian fans would make the trip to South-East Asia. With more than three-quarters of the tournament remaining that may still be the case, but at four weeks the sixteen team tournament is a long one for travelling fans needing to take time off work.

Whilst the Asian Cup may have failed to capture the imagination of Thai fans, fellow co-hosts Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia all drew respectable attendances to their opening fixtures - with a vociferous home crowd at My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi helping to propel the Vietnamese to arguably their greatest ever victory.

Yet Japan's match with Qatar produced an atmosphere akin to a funeral, and with Iran still to play Uzbekistan in Kuala Lumpur, and a blockbuster between Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia yet to come in Jakarta, AFC officials must be biting their nails in the hope of drawing some decent crowds.

All of this in stark contrast to the impressive average crowd of 31,877 that turned out for each match at the 2004 Asian Cup held in China. Critics are quick to highlight that the key difference is that the 2004 tournament took place in one country, whilst the latest edition is being co-hosted by four. That has presented a logistical nightmare for AFC officials, with chairman Mohammad Bin Hamman already claiming that the decision to co-host the tournament between four nations was "a mistake."

A mistake it may be, but it is one that the AFC has to live with. Nervous officials are claiming that the potentially vital Matchday 3 encounter between Thailand and Australia could draw a full house at Rajamangala. Well may they hope that it does, for in a city supposedly full of fanatical football fans, anything less may leave the AFC with egg on its face.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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