China bound: French striker Nicolas Anelka signed a lucrative deal with Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua in December. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
If three wise men really did follow a yonder star then over two thousand years later, even the most insular inhabitants of the soccer world knows that something is rising in the east. These days though the little town of Bethlehem is not the destination but modern metropolises such as Shanghai, Dubai and Mumbai. Not long ago to western ears, these were exotic-sounding names in faraway lands, but now they loom ever larger in the world of commerce, business and increasingly, soccer.
Europe, the birthplace and still the center of the beautiful game has faced challengers that were going to change the balance of power before -the United States in the seventies, early nineties Japan and the Gulf States on and off for decades –but it never happened. This time it’s different. There are new developments that are not happening in isolation. It doesn’t mean that Western Europe is finished, but it does mean that the global game is becoming a little more equal.
Russia and the United States are on the rise but nothing can match the march of Asia. Clubs that were unheard of even just a couple of years ago now make regular appearances in the sports sections of newspapers and websites all over the world. 2011 ended with the move of Nicolas Anelka to Shanghai Shenhua, coming just three months after Asamoah Gyan left Sunderland for Al Ain in the Emirates. These are not the close-to-retirement veterans of the past heading to warmer climes for gentle football. About money the moves may still be, but these days there is little about the beautiful game anywhere that isn’t.
Show me the money: Samuel Eto’o took his talents to Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala to become the world’s highest paid footballer. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
According to reports, Samuel Eto’o at Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia, Anelka at Shanghai and Dario Conca at Guangzhou are, respectively, the first and third and fourth best paid players in the world. European giants such as AC Milan, Manchester United and Bayern Munich can’t compete in the transfer market with these clubs. A growing number of the ones that can, such as PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City, do so thanks to funds from Russia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar respectively. Along with money comes power and influence. Western Europe has less than it used to as was demonstrated brutally in December 2010, as it was brushed aside in the battle to host the 2018 World Cup. Qatar then upset the applecart again by taking 2022.
The traditional big leagues rightly say that their teams are still the ones that the world looks to, but this is not a zero-sum game. Europe is going to be preeminent for a long time to come, increasingly as many Asian fans of European clubs have attractive local options. Some won’t care, some will follow both but some will slowly lose interest in football played thousands of miles away when there are stars on their own doorsteps.
Asia moves quickly. The continental scene as 2012 arrives is unrecognizable form that of a decade ago and with the pace increasing, 2022 can’t be imagined. Europe has the history and prestige, yet lacks something that Asia has in spades and that is potential.
Even now in China, there are teams full of stars playing in front of 40,000 every week. Some of the stadia and facilities have to be seen to be believed and more are being built. Money is coming into the game and more fans (and sponsors) are starting to return to the Chinese Super League after some dark years. South Korea and Japan have been the best in Asia for years, helped in part by big business. East Asia is on its way to becoming a serious power bloc in the world of football with three of the world’s top 12 economies all closely connected in commerce (and bitter history and rivalries) and all becoming increasingly interconnected in the world of football.
Southeast Asia previously had a negligible impact on the world of soccer. Nonetheless, this is a region of 600 million people with huge passion for the game. Mismanagement, suspicion and corruption have held it back, but slowly this is changing. Ten years from now it is certainly not impossible that there will be a regional Super League with well-supported teams from Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and elsewhere all competing for the title backed by some of the richest men in the world.
The Middle East is another soccer-loving region ambition and resources to match. And then there is India, further back in the development stage than almost anywhere on the continent, precisely because of the inactivity with those inside the country ignoring the football frenzy growing middle class. It is here where European clubs are the busiest behind the scenes, currying favor and trying to arrange games.
It is not all wine and roses though. Until now, only Japan, and, to a lesser extent, South Korea, have demonstrated the long-term vision to build a developed football infrastructure. For all the money sloshing around elsewhere, the overwhelming majority goes to the very top level of the game while the grassroots are neglected.
Take one of the growing numbers of Asian billionaires starting to take an interest in the game today. For example, Erick Thohir, the co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, is happy to bring the likes of David Beckham and Los Angeles Galaxy to his homeland of Indonesia for an exhibition match, and is on the lookout for a foreign soccer club to buy. What he is not, yet at least, interested in doing is investing in the local game; and even when that happens, there is still an aversion to the unglamorous boring stuff like financing youth football and investing in coaches.
Japan has shown the way by combining big-name signings such as Zico, Dunga, Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojkovic early in the J-League’s history with a well- thought out development program. The league is not the richest in Asia, but it’s clearly the best. The most valuable lesson from the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ is that there is no short cut to sustained success; a lesson starting to be learned elsewhere. Even with the recent big-money transfers in the continent, there are signs that this is changing with league sponsors investing significant amounts in youth football programs.
Asia has the passion, the population and the potential. Now it just needs to show that is has the patience to ensure that the brightest stars will be shining in the east for years to come. Europe’s time at the top of the tree is not over, but it may have to learn to share the spotlight.