The Southeast Asian football bubble

Despite a passion for the beautiful game, Southeast Asia continually fails to make an impact on football’s world stage.

Thailand are the great Southeast Asian hope, with an ever-improving domestic league and impressive performances against Korean and Japanese opposition in the Asian Champions League [GALLO/GETTY]
Thailand are the great Southeast Asian hope, with an ever-improving domestic league and impressive performances against Korean and Japanese opposition in the Asian Champions League [GALLO/GETTY]

Articles and theories abound as to why China can’t find 11 top class players out of 1.3 billion.

Less attention is given to Southeast Asia, a region with about half the population but double the love for football. When it comes to the beautiful game however, passion and population are not always enough.

Of the 20 teams that reached the penultimate round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, only Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore came from Southeast Asia. Of the total of 18 games played by that trio, only two did not end in defeat.

Nobody expected a place in Brazil – it was 1938 when the region last had a representative in the guise of Dutch East Indies – but it was lamentable nonetheless.

Fans seeking solace in the 2015 Asian Cup may be disappointed. The 2011 tournament was ASEAN-free and as Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia plan for the second round of games in qualification on Friday, all are doing so after losing the opening match. Another no-show would not be a surprise.

If passion and population do not guarantee success, certain off-the-field problems bring inevitable failure and Southeast Asia has its fair share: corruption, politics, short-sightedness, cronyism and, a general lack of football people in positions of influence.

Indonesia, the country with the biggest potential is the best, or worst, example.

Nurdin Halid was imprisoned during his tenure as FA chief for corruption and despite finally being forced to step down in 2011, the divisions he created spawned two leagues and two federations that have only agreed to stop fighting in the past few days in the face of a FIFA suspension.

No wonder then that the national team can go and lose 10-0 to Bahrain in World Cup qualification. Some cried foul at the result and bribery may have been easier to swallow than the fact that the team, handicapped by the political situation, was simply terrible.

Tom Byer is a noted youth development expert with many years experience in Japan and now China and Indonesia. 

“All of the money is being poured into the top end of the game believing that in some perverse way that money into the top end of the pyramid will buy results. It hasn’t yet,” Byer told Al Jazeera.

“The bottom line is that investment into youth development yields dividends down the road. There’s no short cut. Federations, leagues people with money to invest just don’t get it but they all want to play at the World Cup.”

Bigger prizes

As Byer points out there is money in the region but much heads overseas.

Malaysians own English Premier League club QPR and promotion-chasing Cardiff City. Thais control Leicester City and Indonesians are involved with clubs in the United States and Australia. Big European teams are paid considerable sums to visit and play exhibitions that excite the media and fans but do little to actually help the local game.

If there is hope, it may lie in Thailand, the only team to come close to reaching the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. The Thai Premier League is improving and its increasingly professional clubs hold their own against Korean and Japanese opposition in the Asian Champions League. 

But even the Land of Smiles is not frown-free. The head of the Thailand FA Worawi Makudi has been accused of corruption more than once and, at times, the federation does not help in preparations for vital games. 

“There has to be better organisation from the leagues and federations,” said Thai national team coach Winfried Schaefer, a German who led Cameroon to the 2002 African Cup of Nations title.

“Two days before we were due to play Australia in qualification, there was a league game. I told the federation that we have to change and if all levels of Thai football work towards the same plan, we can have a better future.”

Schaefer also believes that clubs have to improve in how they train players – both tactically and physically.

There is nothing wrong with the technical ability in the region but giving players more international exposure is certainly a good idea. Southeast Asia is something of a bubble. Once you are in it, getting out can be hard and the same goes for national teams that play each other far too often instead of testing themselves against outside forces. The AFF Suzuki Cup – the region’s biennial tournament – is fiercely contested but increasingly ignored by the wider world.

But the world can wait.

Asia comes first with five crucial games on Friday. India and China could be at the 2015 Asian Cup and it really would be depressing if there was no representation from the continent’s south-east. The teams need to start winning and soon.

Source: Al Jazeera

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