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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

The Asian Cup 2019 heralds a new era as football shifts to the east

The beautiful game has long been a vehicle of diplomacy and soft power. Now the global ambitions of countries across the Middle East and Asia are evident in their changing approach to the sport

China's national team is managed by Marcello Lippi, a giant of European football who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006. Karim Jaafar / AFP
China's national team is managed by Marcello Lippi, a giant of European football who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006. Karim Jaafar / AFP

On Saturday, the AFC Asian Cup kicks off in Abu Dhabi with an encounter between the UAE and Bahrain. The month-long tournament will see the finest footballers from the world’s most populous continent battle it out in the region’s answer to the European Championships and the Copa America.

The competition will offer a spectacle for fans of both football and geopolitics. The first-round draw includes matches between Iran and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, 19 months after Riyadh – alongside the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain – severed ties with Doha, accusing it of funding international terrorism.

But behind the politics, the winds of change are blowing in football itself. The beautiful game is moving east, ushering in a new era for the sport. So, as the action gets under way, remember to keep a close eye on its participants – you might be witnessing the start of a new football revolution.

Football’s origins are humble. The sport emerged in the 19th century, at the height of the industrial revolution. In dark, smoggy Europe, dozens of teams were formed, bringing players and fans momentary escape from the drab monotony of urban life. The world’s first club, Sheffield FC, formed in 1857. It was, you might say, ahead of the game, given that it took nearly a decade for Britain’s second club, Notts County FC, to emerge.

Still, as teams formed in towns and cities across Europe, comprehensive league structures emerged. By 1871, the Football Association in England already had 50 member clubs. In response to the need for a single body to oversee football, Fifa was born in Paris in 1904. What followed was the brand of European football our grandfathers would have watched.

Fast-forward a century to today’s globalised world, and a huge market for broadcasting, sponsorship, stadium naming and merchandising has developed.

The football industry is booming. According to the consultancy firm Deloitte, the European game alone is worth more than €25 billion ($28.4bn) annually. These numbers are a language that economically rising nations understand.

Without home-grown football cultures, countries in the Middle East and Asia have been slow to develop on the pitch. With the exception of Japan and South Korea, few can point to any meaningful success in international competition. At the same time, as European clubs have turned themselves into global brands, many have acquired impressive fan bases across the region. Today in the UAE – as elsewhere – the number of youngsters sporting Al Ain or Al Jazira shirts pales in comparison to those wearing the badge of Liverpool or Barcelona.

As a result, Gulf states, such as the UAE and Qatar, have beefed up their sponsorship portfolios in Europe. Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City in 2018. When its players held the Premier League trophy aloft in May, the world saw the logo of Etihad Airways emblazoned on their chests. Some 200 miles to the south, the north London side Arsenal’s home ground is the Emirates Stadium.

Qatar Sports Investments, run by Nasser Al Khelaifi, today owns Paris Saint-Germain, France’s most successful club, and until 2017 sponsored the five-time European champions, Barcelona. In 2022, Qatar will host the Middle East’s first World Cup. Although the country’s successful bid has been plagued by allegations of corruption, it remains an symbol of football’s eastward trajectory.

Looking beyond the Gulf, Malaga and Espanyol in Spain, the French side Sochaux and the Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague are all owned by Chinese investors.

Apart from its financial promise, football has long been a vehicle of diplomacy and soft power. As a result, the global ambitions of countries across the Middle East and Asia are evident in their changing approach to the game.

China, the UAE, India and Thailand have pumped money into their domestic football leagues, hiring acclaimed international coaches, developing world-class ­facilities and acquiring expensive foreign talent. Hulk, Ramires and Oscar – three titans of Brazilian football – currently play in China, as do the Argentines Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Mascherano. All have competed at the highest levels of European football, representing Liverpool, Barcelona, Chelsea and others. Importantly, none are considered past their best.

The embryonic Indian Super League has attracted stars such as the Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov, Frenchmen Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet, and the Brazilian Roberto Carlos, who once captained Spanish giants Real Madrid. With hundreds of international caps between them, all were no doubt drawn by high salaries as they enter the twilight years of their careers. UAE clubs have fielded a string of big names, including the Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan and Sweden’s Marcus Berg, who recently helped Al Ain FC defy the odds and reach the final of the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

A similar process has occurred in football management. Former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson has landed in Abu Dhabi with his Philippines side, while the Chinese national team is managed by Marcello Lippi, a giant of European football who led Italy to World Cup glory in 2006.

The priority, now, is to develop local talent. China has drawn up a bold plan to host and win a World Cup by 2050. Many expect it to succeed.

Business success off the pitch will help. Chinese owners of European clubs will have access to a rich seam of talent and deep football knowledge. And tours by major foreign teams to the backyards of their owners – such as the visit of the Manchester City squad to Abu Dhabi last March – can inspire a generation of young, home-grown talent.

The “Asianisation” of football is most evident in China, whose ambitions in the game are far-reaching. Jack Ma, owner of Alibaba, acquired a 50 per cent stake in the country’s most successful club Guangzhou Evergande, in 2014. He has since invested in one of Asia’s biggest ­player-development academies, in southern China, which is reportedly training 2,300 future players. Ma is just one of many major Chinese industrialists to plough money into football.

And European clubs are ­taking notice of Asia’s potential. La Liga, the Spanish football league, has opened ­offices in Beijing and Tokyo, and plans to hold more ­matches at hours that allow Asian fans to watch live. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona all have offices or academies in Asia.

Of course, in a handful of the countries competing in this month’s Asian cup, football is underfunded, corrupt, or simply a peripheral concern. The likes of Syria, Yemen and Iraq, plagued by conflict and internal strife, can only realistically hope to bring a little pleasure to their supporters.

Most Asian and Middle ­Eastern nations are also still poorly ranked by Fifa. With few major players, they have ­historically failed to compete on the world stage.

By contrast, countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa have produced a series of world-class players, most recently Mo Salah of Egypt. Perhaps one reason is colonial – in the 2014 World Cup, Algeria was dubbed “the

other French team”, with two-thirds of its players born in France.

But with nations across the Middle East and Asia pursuing footballing excellence at a political level – and eager companies following suit – that is certain to change.

Once shrugged off as feeble opponents on the pitch and large affluent fan bases off it, Asian nations are growing a real football culture of their own – one that could see them challenge the world’s best.

Updated: January 3, 2019 07:29 PM

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