Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Will Australia Finally Embrace Asian Football in 2014?

As the clock ticked over into 2014 it was not just a time of reflection on the year that was, but also a chance to look forward to what lay ahead and make your wishes for 2014. My wish, football wise anyway, is that 2014 is the year that Australia finally embraces Asian football.

Since joining the AFC in 2006 Australians haven't so much embraced Asian football as tolerated it. Asian football has been like the unpopular kid from school living next door that Australia has humoured and pretended to like, but deep down they'd rather be somewhere else, hanging with the cool kids on the other side of town.

But that unpopular kid next door is Australia's business partner for life and it is he who will put us on the path to success in the future. The sooner that realisation is made, and the sooner we start respecting, appreciating and working with the kid next door the better it will be for everyone.

Everyone has a role to play - FFA, media, clubs and fans - in developing a new attitude of respect and appreciation for Asian football.

The FFA can start but doing what almost every other nation in Asia has done - introducing the 3+1 system for foreign players in the A-League. Or if they want to remain at 5 foreign players opt for 4+1. Introducing a +1 system will force clubs to look to Asia if they want to fulfil their full quota of foreign players.

It will mean clubs will need to develop scouting networks in Asia, sophisticated ones at that to ensure that get the best talent available. The fact that in a league of close to 250 players there are only 3 players (Ali Abbas, Ryo Nagai and Shinji Ono) from Asia is a sad indictment on the league and how we value Asian football. In fact, with Nagai's loan spell ending this past week that number is now just two. Ono will depart at the end of this season to return to Japan and Abbas is now a naturalised Australian citizen.

By way of comparison, there are close to 30, mostly Japanese and Korean, in the Thai Premier League (TPL). Admittedly the TPL does have 20 teams as opposed to 10 in the A-League. Despite that, there are still significantly more players from AFC nations in the TPL than there are in the A-League.

Just this past off-season Daiki Iwamasa (284 games for Kashima Antlers), Robert Cullen (naturalised Japanese player with 100+ games experience for Jubilo Iwata and 60+ games for VVV Venlo) and Teruyuki Moniwa (172 games for FC Tokyo and 112 for Cerezo Osaka) have moved to the Thai Premier League.

Players of genuine quality and yet I don't think it would be a stretch to say there was zero interest in signing any of them, or players of similar quality, to the A-League. In Japan this year a new rule has been introduced allowing all clubs to sign an extra foreign player, provided that player is from a SE Asian nation. It is part of the J.League’s push into SE Asia.

Last year the league 'gave away' its TV rights to four SE Asian nations - Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. In return the local broadcasters agreed to give commercial slots and sponsorship opportunities to Japanese companies, who pay a fee to the J.League.

Introducing 3+1 means there are greater opportunities for clubs to grow in the region. Would a club be so bold as to go after one of the continents best strikers, Thailand’s Teerasil Dangda? Or target one of the biggest stars in Indonesia, Irfan Bachdim (one of the players to recently trial at J.League club Ventforet Kofu), a man who has 4.2m twitter followers! Although with Bachdim they may have been beaten to the punch, with reports suggesting J.League side Ventforet Kofu will sign up the talented young striker.

Perhaps instead of bemoaning the fact his players have been called up to the Olyroos for a "meaningless" tournament, Newcastle Jets coach Gary van Egmond should have a scout there looking for the best new talent in Asia. We all know how unlikely that is, however.

The media also have their part of play. There is a little bit of chicken and egg here. What comes first? Increased fan interest, which forces increased media interest, or increased media coverage to drive increased fan interest?

In my opinion it has to be the latter. There is a commercial interest in FOX SPORTS promoting Asian football. They own the rights to the AFC Champions League, they own the rights to the AFC Asian Cup and they own the rights to the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the AFC region. It is in there interest for the popularity of Asian football to increase, as it will increase the viewer base for the above-mentioned competitions.

That, sadly, has not been the case, however. FOX SPORTS' coverage has been sporadic at best. It rarely shows an AFC Champions League game that doesn’t involve an A-League team. It rarely shows a FIFA World Cup Qualifier that doesn't involve Australia.

One of the highlights of the Asian football scene in 2013 was the AFC Champions League Final between FC Seoul and Guangzhou Evergrande. Both games (it was played over two legs) were played in front of 50,000+ crowds, and both games were a fantastic advertisement for Asian football. Neither game was shown on FOX SPORTS. This was the first time they haven't broadcast the AFC Champions League Final.

After seven years as a member of the AFC the coverage should be increasing, not decreasing and yet that is exactly what is happening.

There was, not that I saw, any word at all on any FOX SPORTS production about the AFC Champions League Final. Not a word. And this is despite them owning the rights to the competition.

SBS on the other hand, on their weekly show The World Game, dedicated a segment of the hour long program to the AFC Champions League Final and had their reporter, and arguably the best Asian football journalist going around, Scott McIntyre, in Guangzhou for the second leg.

Is it any wonder fans of the A-League teams competing in the ACL are left saying "who?" when the draw is held when there is little coverage of the tournament?

This isn't a problem exclusive to Australia, it's the same right around Asia, but it's one we should look to fix. This year it is quite possible that there will be three A-League teams in the ACL. That means that, for the group stage at least, there will be three games each match day. That's good, that’s already a marked increase on last year. But what happens if/when the Australian teams are eliminated? Does it again disappear from our screens?

This is a tournament that will involve a lot of players who will take part in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup here in Australia. Again, it is in FOX SPORTS commercial interest for that tournament that be a success and attract as many eyeballs as possible. If fans know and are familiar with the players involved then there is more of a chance of that happening. It would be fantastic to see games involving no A-League teams broadcast. For example, I'm sure fans of Central Coast, Western Sydney and Melbourne Victory would be interested in how the other teams in their group are playing, especially when the results of those games could determine whether they progress to the Round of 16.

Why not show the other game from each of those groups each match day? FOX SPORTS will point to poor ratings as an excuse, but unless there is an investment in Asian football to create more interest ratings will always be poor, especially when coverage is so sporadic. And when you show the first leg of the Mexican league final at midday on a Friday afternoon, does the ratings argument really stack up?

And then there are the little things.

Pronunciation of names is a cultural thing that will take time for all Australians to learn. But commentators should make every effort to get the pronunciation correct. Some do, while some just butcher it. Some of the efforts during last year's ACL were just embarrassing. It may have been simple human error, a typo that we all do hundreds of time each year, but in an official press release it shouldn't happen. I'm referring to Adelaide United’s mistake last week, announcing that Antony Golec was off to Chinese side Liaoning Whomin. It is, of course, Liaoning Whowin.

The old 'copy & paste' caught a few people out, who were probably none the wiser, when a few journalists and official twitter accounts repeated the same mistake. Then there was the doozy from the FFA, who expanded their official website last year to become an "independent" news website, rather than just a corporate site.

It included all new sections dedicated to news around the globe, but tellingly when it was launched there was no section for Asia. Europe, English Premier League, all the usual sections were there, but no section for Asia. It was quickly rectified, but it was an oversight that spoke volumes. Again, little things, but it speaks to a greater lack of understanding, knowledge and respect for the game in Asia.

In the world we live in it is the media who set the agenda. What they show is what we discuss. What they discuss quickly become the latest talking points. It is, therefore, the media, and that includes everyone in the broader Australian football media, who need to lead the way in promoting Asian football and encouraging our learning and understanding of this vast continent. That doesn't mean being cheerleaders, but it means making a concerted effort to dedicate time and space to reporting on Asian football, the good and the bad.

With the 2015 AFC Asian Cup on our doorstep there has never been a better time for that process to start, and it is my greatest wish that 2014 will be the year we in Australia starts that process of embracing the wonderful world of Asian football.

Copyright ©  Paul Williams and Soccerphile.com

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