As the world’s football fans savour tournaments in Europe, Simon Chadwick asks why Southeast Asia can’t seem to win possession of the world football spotlight.
This month, the football world focused its attention on the FIFA World Club Championship (which took place in Japan). At the same time, UEFA’s Champions League group phase came to an end, while football watchers continued to be astounded by China’s intensifying interest and grand plans in football. Most people were probably not paying too much attention to the Suzuki Cup.
Unless you are a hardcore football fan, it is likely that you are asking ‘what’s the Suzuki Cup?’ The Japanese automotive corporation is title sponsor of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, of which this year’s tournament was the 11th edition. ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the competition is given FIFA ‘Category A’ status (which earns international ranking points for participants).
The AFF has 12 member associations, with this year’s competition being contested between Myanmar, the Philippines (both of them co-hosts), Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and Cambodia. Australia was absent this year, but is arguably the best known, most established football nation in ASEAN. This year’s final will be contested over two legs between Thailand and Indonesia.
Buoyant interest in the competition is not unusual; indeed, in 2012 more than 190 million people are thought to have watched the tournament on television, including 15 million Indonesian fans alone as their national team contested the final. But the apparent health of these figures masks a harsher reality.
When Thailand played Singapore in this year’s competition, there were only 359 people inside the stadium to watch the game. Perhaps unsurprising when the region’s highest ranked FIFA nation is Australia (which is in itself an issue) in 48th place, after which the Philippines appears in 117th place.
Football in ASEAN does not have the commercial appeal of the European game, nor the associated perceptions of glamour that accompany football in, say, Argentina or Brazil. As a result, even the most ardent football fans from across the world are likely to struggle to name players or clubs from the region. Indeed, in preparing this piece I tried to note down prominent people or organisations linked to ASEAN. My list reached three.
It revealed a great deal about my personal ignorance, but sadly also about the world’s knowledge about and perceptions of the ASEAN region. To my embarrassment, the list consisted of Peter Withe, Manchester United, and Vincent Tan. That I should recall these three in particular nevertheless reveals a great deal, both about my (European) perceptions of the region’s football, and about the challenges it faces.
Former Aston Villa and England international player Peter Withe has had a long association with football in Thailand. After a distinguished career as a player, the majority of his managerial career has been spent in the ASEAN region. During this time, he has managed Thailand and Indonesia, as well as Thai club sides PTT Rayong and Nakhon Pathom United. Withe did so without ever having managed at the top-level in European football.
Unlike China and Japan, the best coaches and managers don’t flock to the ASEAN countries. This could be a reflection of football’s profile, importance and quality in the region, though it could also be a reflection of the salaries that are paid, and of the perceptions of career development that coaches and managers have should they consider moving to Southeast Asia. Perhaps it is also a case too of local managers simply not being good enough.
Manchester United sprang to mind and made it onto my list because of the large numbers of fans the club has across the ASEAN region. That said, Arsenal and Liverpool also have strong followings in the region and could easily have made my list. English football has always been very good at signing television deals in the region, which dates back several decades.
As such, many of the region’s football fans were brought up with English clubs being beamed directly into their living rooms. This has resulted in successful fan engagement for many English clubs, with locals often more predisposed to the likes of United than to their own domestic teams. To illustrate this point, when the Reds played against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur during the summer of 2009 the game was an 85,000 sell-out.
Getting anywhere near this level of attendance is proving to be a major challenge across the ASEAN countries, a situation that is hardly helped when some of the region’s richest individuals and businesses have also looked westwards for opportunities. Malaysian multi-millionaire Vincent Tan has possibly become the most obvious face of this, although many football fans see him more as a pantomime villain. Cardiff City owner Tan is infamous for his failed attempts to change the colour of City’s shirts from traditional blue to a more commercially appealing red.
Tan’s somewhat idiosyncratic approach to club ownership has drawn scorn amongst critics, although he is not alone in attracting derision. Reading’s co-owner, Thai businesswoman Khunying Sasima Srivikorn, stunned fans (and possibly made ears bleed) with a self-penned club song. Meanwhile, her compatriot Thaksin Shinawatra had such an ill-fated spell as owner of Manchester City that Sven-Goran Eriksson, one of the team’s managers during that time, claimed the Thai ‘didn’t have a clue’ about running a football club.
Whether due to lack of knowledge or experience, or for completely different reasons, there is consequently a sense that football in the ASEAN region is hardly served by suitably qualified or competent leaders and managers. This situation is not helped by other factors either, such as Australia’s recent inclusion within the ASEAN group of countries or by the growth of China’s interest in football.
Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 and ASEAN football in 2014, decisions that were and still are laden with politics. Although some leaders within ASEAN football have welcomed the opportunities this has created, others are more sceptical. Indeed, several people have actually called from Australia to disengage from Asian football and head back to the Oceania confederation. The issue of Australia almost seems like an endless and unnecessary distraction.
As for China, the regional giant is occupying ASEAN’s attention as the Middle Kingdom has embarked on a massive football investment program. Not only is this grabbing the headlines in East Asia, it is also soaking up resources – playing, managerial, financial and otherwise. This has only added to the challenges facing football in countries like Indonesia and Myanmar, and China has only just commenced its quest to stage and win the World Cup.
There are some bright spots for ASEAN, for example, the success at Thai-owned Leicester City. This proves that there is an appreciation from within the region of what it takes to be successful in football. Even so, this was the English (!) Premier League, once again suggesting that at least within the region, the likes of the Suzuki Cup and its winner still have some way to go in being accepted and respected by world football.
This article is published in collaboration with New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.