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The Rising Sun in the East

Thursday 19th January 2012
Asia is an emerging force in World Football. The continent hosts some of the largest population centres in the world and many within this large population are avid supporters of the big European teams. This is the very reason that teams such as Manchester United and Barcelona often tour the region during pre-season allowing them to tap into this commercially lucrative market even further. These supporters are also drawn to support these teams due to the fact that they idolise players from their own nation. The success of Park Ji-Sung at Manchester United is an example of this, with the club launching a Korean language version of their official website. On the other hand Arsenal's attempts at interacting with this market through the signing of Japan's rising star - Junichi Inamoto - in 2001 before the first World Cup in Asia were highly unsuccessful.

In terms of economic power, population and political influence India and China are the big players in the continent. In terms of success at the World Cup, South Korea have achieved the most - reaching the semi-final at the tournament they shared the honour of hosting with Japan. I mentioned earlier how fans in this region idolise the people who bring them success - the coach of South Korea at the 2002 Guus Hiddink now has a stadium named after him in the city of Gwangju. China crashed out in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup - their first appearance at the finals - and have not qualified since. India have never qualified.
India and China are vying to become the next global superpower - the question is which of the two will become a footballing superpower?

Growing affluence in the region has lead to investments into the domestic leagues which will inspire younger generations and attract household names to play in Asia. Two recent developments give this substance.

Many eyebrows were raised when Nicolas Anelka announced that he had agreed to join Shanghai Shenhua. With Anelka rumoured to being paid around £175,000 a week for the duration of a 3 year contract he may have seen this as an opportunity to build the profile of the sport in an emerging market whilst earning a wage that no European team would provide him with given his advancing years. Anelka will be able to offer the Chinese League more than its last high profile European import however. Paul Gascoigne joined Gansu Tianma in February 2003 yet only after 4 games and 2 goals ended up checking into an Arizona clinic to try and get a grip on his well-publicised problems.

Chinese football is currently gripped with a corruption trial of vast proportions. Almost half the teams in the first division (including Shanghai Shenhua) as well as officials, referees and unfortunately players being implicated. Judgement in the trial is due before January 23rd. Only once this judgement is passed will it become clear whether it impacts upon the development of the league. This has not prevented players known all around the world such as Didier Drogba and Ronaldinho being linked with big money moves.

India is a completely different proposition. It is a country where football will always play second fiddle to cricket. It is very interesting that a football competition based on the highly popular and successful model of the Indian Premier League cricket tournament has been launched in the past weeks.

The concept is very simple.
Celebrity Management Group (CMG) - the organisers of the competition have already tendered for the franchises. In the first edition there are 6 franchises all based in the West Bengal region. There is then a pool of coaches and "icon" players who the teams will bid for at an auction in Kolkata before the games take place between February 25th and April 8th. These "icons" have been attracted by a pay packet of  $600,000 for 7 weeks of work. This may seem like an unsustainable model, but CMG have signed a 30 year deal with the Indian Football Association for the league. Furthermore they have stipulated that each franchise must also run teams at under-13, under-16 and under-19 levels to develop young Indian players. Each team is limited to 4 overseas players and the 30 player squad list must be made up of six under-21 Indian players, six players of any age who live close to where the team is based, and 14 players from anywhere within India.

Coaches include legendary former Portugal captain Fernando Couto, Peter Reid and Colin Todd. Whilst the pool of overseas icons is made up by players such as Robert Pires, Fernando Morientes, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo, Maniche and Fabio Cannavaro to name a few.

These names will no doubt generate interest in the competition from afar during its infancy. But the developmental rules and stipulations of CMG should result in massive improvements in the quality of Indian footballers in the long term.

Interestingly Sepp Blatter, the much maligned president of FIFA has gone on record and said that it will be easier to set up a structure to deliver football from grass roots level up in India rather than China. Beforehand however a "top-down" approach is necessary to enthuse supporters and encourage investment.

It is not yet clear how the Indian and Chinese leagues will compare in the next generation as they are both building, yet following different paths as they develop and try and make a mark in global footballing circles.

One thing is clear however - the sun is rising over football in the far east.
Andy Rumens

Total articles: 8

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