My dream come true, ASEAN football

By Patipat Kittichokwattana

It’s true that ASEAN nations play football for a long time. But the longer does not expect the higher stage of achievement in the world of football. Japan is a good example because baseball, not football, is the most popular sport in this country. But establishment of semi-professional league in 1986 and fully professional league in 1993 was the steppingstone of Japanese football success in both clubs and national level. It’s a relative short time from league lunched to enter FIFA world cup final round. And J-League is becoming a success model of ASEAN.

Historically, Japan and some of ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia started the professional league nearly at the same time. But successful of professionalized and commercialized clubs and league seem different. The M-League of Malaysia and S-League of Singapore were the ASEAN frontmost professional league found in 1994 and 1996 respectively. The league and club authorities have invested high amount of money to recruit professional coaches and talented players from every corner of the world. Unfortunately, low privatization had limited opportunities to gain business profits and further self-reliance.

In the early day of ASEAN football leagues, most of the clubs were state-owned or relied on government support. Interestingly, club personnel ranging from players, coaches, fitness trainers, and even referees were mostly part-time. In 2009, the first year of Thailand professional league, 7 out of 16 were former government support clubs, no club had their own stadium, most of the referees enlisted were P.E. teachers on a part-time job, and surprisingly all players of a certain club were military officers. Even so, attempt to privatize the leagues and clubs have gradually progressed.

Chinese Super League (CSL) is one of the most interesting leagues right now. Previously, Chinese league were under the tight control of government. The market driven economic reform in 1993 has embarked major changes in business and industries as well as sport system. Followed in 1994, China Football Association (CFA) began to restructure football league toward commercialization and professionalization. At the beginning, most of the clubs were state-owned or depended on local government support. They slowly transferred ownership status. By 2003, privately owned clubs in the highest division were 45%. Ten years has passed, the league was dominated by privately owned clubs.

Privatization has drastically affected Chinese league financial resources. Multi-national companies gladly took part as title sponsor and official partners. Broadcasting rights sold over 90 countries worldwide. Chinese wealthy companies have become major shareholder of the certain clubs such as Alibaba, Wanda, CITIC, Evergrande, Lifan, etc. Consequently, annual club spending had risen from US$ 163,000 in 1994 to US$ 65.21 million in 2003 and to US$ 696 million by 2018. Average annual income of professional player had jumped from US$ 326 in 1994 to US$ 81,522 in 2003 and to US$ 1.05 million by 2018. It’s nearly three times over the Japanese J-League.

During winter transfer window of 2015-2016 season, CSL were the top spending league in the world. They spent much more than English Premier League. CSL eagerly recruits world class foreign players and coaches who still in the peak of their career. For example, Alex Teixeira (26)[1], Ramires (28), and Gervinho (28) reportedly moved with over US$ 20 million transfer fees. Interestingly, in 2017, Oscar (25) transferred to Shanghai S.I.P.G. with Asian record of US$ 68.40 million. Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari, World Cup winning coaches, were successively hired to be the head coach of Chinese’s biggest club “Guangzhou Evergrande” in 2012 and 2015.

Money power has made the low-tier football league to become the fastest growing professional league in the world. On the one hand, it empirically raises club performance to enter the class of elite Asian clubs. Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, won 7 consecutive CSL (2011-2017) and 2 times AFC Champions League (2013, 2015) as when giant real estate firm took over. On the other hand, more worrisome concerning excessive club spending and foreign players dependent which might affect league self-reliance. Accordingly, CFA introduced 2019 financial investment regulations to stop the clubs going into debt such as the limit of annual spending, domestic annual salary cap, and salary cost to total spending ratio.

To our knowledge, certain club recruit foreign superstar players to boost revenues and team performance. It’s suspicious that the superstar really generates more attendance and revenues? Substantial studies have investigated this assumption in various kind of sports. It indicated the presence of superstar players had positive effect on attendance both home and away games. Next, can recruiting superstar players level up other player performance? Also, many studies indicated the significance spillover effects of superstar on national team performance. It confirms important role of foreign star players toward league development.

Interestingly, a lot of studies found that a country’s success depends on export star players too. It reflects drains and gains coincident. On the one hand, when star players transfer to a more competitive foreign league, it drains the immediate performance of their origin country’s club. On the other hand, it will allow them to gain skills which in turn affect national team improvement. Japan and South Korea are good examples of exporting star players to the world’s top leagues and its consequent on FIFA World Cup final round.

ASEAN nations support their talent players to higher quality foreign leagues. Vietnamese star “Nguyen Cong Phuong” goes to Belgium first division A. “Sint-Truiden”. Singaporean “Ikhsan Fandi” plays at Norway first division “Raufoss”. Indonesian “Egy Maulana Vikri” plays at “Lechia Gdansk” in the top Polish professional league. And Thailand currently shows their top performance in Japan first tier League. Among that, it found oversea born player in top European leagues. Neil Etheridge (Philippine) who was born in London and currently plays as goalkeeper at Cardiff City F.C., English Premier League.

It’s an early step of ASEAN ambition to move forward in the world of football. Just wait and see.

[1] Age of Player

[Photo Credit: www.aseanfootball.org]

Kittipat Kittichokwattana, PaddyNews Writer