Asian teams struggle to match the glamor and star power of European football. It will take time to compete on the pitch, but that doesn't mean that Asian leagues and clubs can’t up their game off it and challenge Europe.
In pre-pandemic times, visitors to Asian cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Dubai on a Saturday evening would have been likelier to see locals watching a football game from England or Spain than their own leagues. It is likely that when the world approaches normality again, the same scenes will be played out. Football is the number one sport in general throughout the continent but football fans in Asia are not necessarily fans of Asian football.
Even in their home markets, Asian clubs struggle to compete with world famous clubs such as Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern Munich. One major Asian broadcaster told DW that despite local games being shown at a much more attractive time of the day, a big English Premier League game usually attracts around 50% more viewers than its Asian equivalent.
Trying to rival and even overtake European football at home is one of the most pressing challenges facing the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which oversees football on the continent.
Asian club issues
It is not all down to the AFC however. "With the AFC it looks like a problem from a macro perspective but it is actually a micro problem in individual markets," Sasi Kumar, a former Singapore international player and founder of sports consultancy Red Card Global, told DW.
While Asian leagues and clubs may struggle to match Europe and the glamor of stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they are also behind Europe in terms of administration, marketing and all-round business sense.
“You have to look at who is pushing local football,” Kumar said. Leading nations like Japan have professionally run leagues, he added, but others are lagging behind. "Asian football suffers a lot from this. Whenever there is a professional setup, the leagues tend to do better. This is not rocket science."
Compared to clubs in Asia, often funded by state entities, royal families, corporations or even military and police forces, European clubs have years of sports business experience and can move quickly to open offices and stores in Asia as well as sign commercial deals.
"They are helped by a combination of globalization and also the weaknesses of the local clubs which are not promoting themselves and lack ability in marketing and connecting with their communities," said Alisher Nikimbaev, Competitions Manager at the FIFA World Cup as well as former General Secretary of the Uzbekistan Football Federation. "European clubs are more developed and able to promote themselves."
Kumar is frustrated to see European giants more active commercially in his homeland than their domestic counterparts. "We have some major brands in Singapore but local clubs have rarely had a commercial deal with them in the last decade. The European clubs have professionals who understand the market and they can extract value from Asia."
He is excited however about the entry of Lion City Sailors into the Singapore Premier League. Bought by a wealthy e-commerce group in 2020, the Sailors are the only privately-owned club in a league where others depend on subsidies from the local federation and state lotteries, a model that does not encourage innovation.
"They have seen that the local market is undervalued and are investing and this can be a model for others," said Kumar. As well as winning the 2021 league title and smashing the country’s transfer record in January in signing Diego Lopes from Benfica for €1.8 million ($2 million), the Sailors have announced plans for a state-of-the-art training facility in order to develop local talent and coaches. Johor Darul Tazim has done something similar in neighbouring Malaysia where the club is also the only privately-owned entity in a country where most teams are operated by state governments.
It may not be glamorous but improving the know-how and competency of officials in various Asian football associations is also key.
In September, the AFC launched its Academic Centre for Excellence which aims to provide practical courses to take member associations to the next level. "The AFC is committed to nurturing the future leaders of Asian football by placing a strong emphasis on interactive learning, with a vision and mission to enable football professionals to acquire the knowledge and skills relating to analysis, problem-solving, creativity and decision-making required in today’s dynamic world of football business," said AFC president Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa.
"The AFC education plan is a very good idea," said Kumar. "This will empower member associations and this will translate to expertise in the marketplace."
More can also still be done in terms of promotion of competitions such as the AFC Champions League, the continent’s flagship tournament, which needs to be seen as a hugely desirable competition in order to incentivise clubs from all leagues to participate in it. Unlike the European equivalent which is open to teams from all countries in the confederation, Asia has limited participation to the leading nations. In 2019, just 12 out of 46 countries were guaranteed a place in the group stage. This was increased to 20 in 2021.
"The AFC are trying to bring more countries into the competition and make it more inclusive," said Nikimbaev. "It has been difficult to see the benefits because of COVID but we should see in two or three years. More promotion is needed."
The ubiquity of social media means that promotion is easier than ever before and this is a field that can be improved relatively quickly.
"I think what the AFC needs with the Champions League is to increase their social media presence directly with the social platforms, like TikTok, who are very open to such partnerships and it’s a great way to reach Gen Z," said Omar Al-Raisi, CEO of Abu Dhabi sports marketing agency Dantani Inc. "The AFC Champions League has always lacked in the PR department, with no significant or memorable campaigns, but social media will help them and their sponsors significantly."