Friday, April 12, 2013


ASEAN Super League

The recent ASEAN Football Federation meeting cleared the way for the long mooted ASEAN Super League to begin in 2014.

The proposed league would see 16 teams from eight countries, (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines) competing for the right to be called ASEAN’s best and early indications are that the clubs would be ‘franchised’ similar to the model used in the United States and Australia.

It may not please purists who would prefer football clubs to be steeped in tradition and history but given the deep seated problems that plague the domestic leagues in this part of the world the best thing ASEAN can do is keep the respective football associations at arms length.

Indonesia’s problems have been well publicized in recent years but they are not alone when it comes to inconsistent leadership.

A couple of years ago many felt the Thai Premier League (TPL) was on course to be one of the best in Asia let alone South East Asia but the hype overlooked some simple, basic structural flaws.

Undoubtedly the TPL boasts some of the best football clubs in the region. Buriram United maybe a relatively new entity but they have been performing creditably in the Asian Champions League while Muang Thong United have proven to be even more successfully in recent years and boast two of the best players in the region; Kawin Thammatchan and Teerasil Dangda.

The league has moved on from the days when the teams were a bunch of three lettered initials, BBC, TFB, SET, TTM based around state owned enterprises in Bangkok. Now the league is truly nationwide with all points of the compass covered yet the recent charge by politicians and businessmen, eying the glory and glamour identified with a successful football team as being good for their ego, has skewered the competition so it resembles Russia pre Communist Revolution with a handful of clubs able to compete thanks to the deep pockets, and influence, of their backers, and the rest.

Buriram United for example are owned by a controversial politician named Newin Chidchob whose family have been the first family of the province as long as anyone can remember. Back in the 1990s Chidchob was alleged to have engaged in vote buying during a general election although now he is banned from serving as a politician the contacts, and loyalty, he and his family have acquired over the years will always come in handy.
No one is suggesting of course Chidchob’s motives for football are less than pure. He has invested serious sums into building the football club and their newly built stadium is an arena Indonesian clubs can only dream of.

But there is a very strong sense in Thailand that the Football Association, led by Worawi Makudi, very much plays second fiddle to the clubs domestically while punching above their weight overseas.

Since the TPL started getting more popular, and stronger, the national team at all levels have struggled prompting coach Winnie Schaefer to take the unprecendated step of writing an open letter to the FA asking for some friendlies to be arranged ahead of the AFF Cup last December. The FA, unhappy at being so publicly exposed, responded with some games arranged but the Thais still lost in the final to Singapore extending a barren run in a competition they felt was theirs by right.

Malaysia have enjoyed phenomenal success over recent years with one AFF Cup and two SEA Games titles in quick succession but the signs are there that trail of glory maybe reaching a brick wall.

As hosts in the AFF Cup they disappointed supporters especially with a 1-0 reverse at home to eventual winners and biggest rivals Singapore.

Undoubtedly the Malaysians have done most in recent years to improve the standing of their national team and it has showed signs of paying off. As a measure of their mind set when Indonesia hosted Saudi Arabia in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier recently the Saudis stopped off in Malaysia for a game; the young Malaysian team, known as Harimau Muda, are currently playing games in Slovakia while a second Harimau Muda compete in Singapore’s SLeague.

However the gentlemen at the Football Association of Malaysia are a prickly bunch, taking offense at any slight perceived or otherwise. Indeed their constitution explicity prohibits club officials, coaches or players speaking critically of the governing body with the result that several coaches are currently serving be threatened with suspensions for trivial offenses like having a go at the match officials or speaking out of turn.
Suffice to say Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene wenger would never be welcome in Malaysia coaching a local team.

A few years back Vietnam’s V League was the most popular in the region, average attendances of more than 11,000 exceeded even Indonesia.

Not anymore. Fans are staying away with last season’s average down by about a third and some clubs have been forced to fold due to financial problems that show no sign of fading away any time soon. The glory days of 2008 when Le Cong Vinh won their first ever AFF Cup in Hanoi against the Thais are very distant and Cong Vinh, at one stage the most expensive player in the region, is finding it hard enough to find any club willing to pay his wages.

Where once a generation of Thai internationals like Pipat Thonkanya and Datsakorn Thonglao saw playing in the V League a necessary part of their football CV, and bank balance, today they are staying at home attracted by the higher salaries and better quality on their own doorstep.

While there is much to be said for franchising any ASEAN Super League then there are difficulties for any new clubs ensuring a toe hold especially in countries with more mature footballing roots

The Thai Premier League has seen relatively new clubs like Bangkok Glass, Muang Thong United and Buriram United recently carve a niche for themselves thanks to savvy marketing but the game lacks the deep roots that are present in other countries.

Starting from scratch in Indonesia for example will be much harder as the backers of the Indonesia Premier League have found. The football hotbeds are undoubtedly cities like Bandung, Surabaya, Malang and possibly Jakarta and recent experiences suggest establishing second clubs in those cities, against well established clubs with history and tradition won’t be an easy task. The good folk of Bandung, for example, bleed Persib blue and have not taken to newcomers like Bandung FC or Pelita Bandung Raya in recent years.

Despite all the obstacles there is no doubt an ASEAN Super League is an opportunity for football to reach out to new markets much like the Thais have managed to do. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are home to millions of football fans who love the game but ignore what they have on their own doorstep. They are quite happy to stay up all hours watching their favourite European team, or teams, quite happy to buy the latest replica shirt but don’t have a clue who their local team is or how they are faring.

If a new ASEAN Super League is able to reach out to this new market by engaging with them and enticing them through the turnstiles they will also be able to tap into a relatively well off supporter who has money to spend and is keen to be associated with the trappings of success and glamour that comes with a local football club but with the exception of a handful of Thai clubs that is something the rest of the region has spectacularly failed to manage.

SOURCE - This appeared in today's Jakarta Globe but not on the website

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