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Opinion - Asian Football, we have come a long way, but are we ready for the next step?

  • Monday, August 11 2008 @ 08:48 pm ACST
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Football in Asia has enjoyed remarkable growth over the past 10 years. More teams, greater competitiveness, real Club spirit and now the introduction of Auskick and other development programmes. As the 9th Asian Championships approach, with each year becoming bigger and better, perhaps it is time the respective Clubs got together and created a unified body to move the game to the next level.

The first championships held in Bangkok in 2000 attracted 4 teams, no sponsorship, and offered very basic facilities. This year’s Asian Championships takes place in Singapore on 6th September and will feature at least 10 teams with current holders Hong Kong, hosts and likely favourites, Singapore, to be joined by an expected very strong team from the UAE along with perennial challengers Bali, Jakarta, Malaysia, Thailand, China (not the Red Demons who will be in Melbourne for the IC08) and Vietnam with first-timers Laos. With each team bringing an average of 25 players plus support staff, the Championships will host a gathering of some 300 plus participants, a very healthy turnout indeed.

The challenge in Asia is now to take the next step, where more clubs begin to undertake the challenge of getting the indigenous communities involved and participating in football, and look towards the creation of a regional body.

Since the inaugural Asian Championships some 8 years ago, the standard of play, individual fitness of players, qualities and quantities of teams, general logistics, commitment and passion, have developed beyond measure. What was little more than a social weekend interspersed with a kick of the Sherrin has developed into a very serious football tournament that all teams within the region view as the Holy Grail.

Fortunately, the social side (it is a predominantly Aussie event after all!) still exists and the after match camaraderie and festivities that typically stretch well into Sunday and in some cases beyond, make the weekend one of the most enjoyable on any footballer or supporter’s calendar.

All of this has been achieved through the passion of individuals and groups within the different countries, who have demonstrated their great love of the game and the uniquely Australian ability to "get the show on the road" with minimal fuss, minimal ego, minimal resources and a willingness to get involved. And no doubt the Singapore event will be a great success as have been all that preceded.

During the past decade, most of the major clubs have been able to establish sound management structures, many with long-serving presidents and/or committeemen, and are financially supported through acceptable levels of sponsorship and by fundraising through events such as the AFL Grand Final functions. Nearly all Clubs have a reasonable player list, albeit predominantly expatriate Australians and have been able to maintain their numbers despite the inevitable comings and goings.

The challenge in Asia is to grow and maintain the playing group, not just so there are enough players but as players get too old, too slow and look to retire to provide a reasonable proportion who move into officialdom (as umpires, perhaps) or club management or at least remain as active supporters and/or officials. Further, an active on-going programme is required where potential players, officials and supporters can be readily identified and recruited, and in the longer term Clubs must face the challenge of getting the indigenous population of the countries in which they play, involved in, and participating in the game.

An extremely important development has been the successful introduction of the Auskick programme in Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesia has had an on-going junior development programme for many years, ironically begun by a New Zealander (Rob Baldwin) and an Indonesian (Andi Mohammed). The ongoing development of these junior programmes is seen as critical to the ultimate progress of the game in Asia.

Prior to the Asian Championships on September 6th, there is likely to be a Club President’s Meeting where one item will be the potential establishment of an Asian Australian Football Council or equivalent, to assist in increasing exposure of the game and the clubs, building participation, and addressing those matters that a common body can do better than individual clubs such as a Pan-Asia Auskick programme, Player Insurance, Corporate Sponsorship, Corporate Travel Deals, Umpires Panel etc, matters that affect Asian Football as a whole.

It is timely that these matters be addressed, because the baby has just got too big! With the Middle East developing its own league under the guidance of the AFL, the more mature Asian Clubs need a single voice giving them the potential to operate on a far bigger scale than currently.

The childhood is over, is Asian Football prepared to move into boisterous adolescence? Watch this space.