2016 is likely to be critical for Asia — not just for its Middle Eastern west but its competing east too. The question is whether Asia, through AFC, as whole can play the part it should on the global stage; and if it is ready to lead the world in replenishing a time of resentment towards the game’s governing body. Will AFC — asean, central, east, west and south — solve their internal differences to build on what the continent has to offer? Or will a divided Asia leave that to the dark lords of the game, which may not even endorse the concept of Asia as one.
The biggest, most immediate challenge to the growth of Asian countries in football is the wide disparity between the nations on the ability to develop the game. The more affluent nations, primarily in the west, have the ability to fund projects at the grassroots level consistently, as compared to nations like Pakistan, Laos and Malaysia among the many. This unfortunately stutters the footballing potential of these countries. Though AFC’s humanitarian arm is constantly working hand in hand with the respective FA’s to fund these projects, without support from the private sector, one cannot expect much. Several governments have reduced funds, as their primary concern is to eradicate poverty before investing in sport – which to a certain extent makes sense.
A practical funding mechanism need to be established by the AFC working directly with the private sector within the less developed nations, from a football perspective. This will alleviate the burden on the government while bringing in qualified judgment on investment from select business minded individuals who understand the significance of turning things around.
Secondly, member states within the continent are known to heavily rely on foreign talent which majority of the time relates into nothing. Don’t get me wrong here. Bringing in the likes of Batistuta, Guardiola, Drogba, Raul, Xavi and many more, does contribute to the popularity of the league, in whichever form it may come, as they bring with them significant experience that can be passed along to the younger generations. However, the likes of certain players who barely made the cut back home, who are approached with lavish contracts only to see them come here and leave in 6 – 10 months is not a viable solution to raising the profile of a league (the Middle Eastern countries are notorious for this).
The overall characteristic – the need to be on top of the table without due diligence has resulted in the very clubs having trouble to pay their own players while satisfying the need of their foreign imports or in general. We hear of clubs in nations like Syria and Iraq – two of the strongest teams in terms of youth squad – finding it difficult to pay players. While I am not suggesting restricting the flow of talented South Americans and others into the continent, it would be ideal to look into the cheap but the abundance of talent available from nations within the continent and bring them around. Not only will this cut down a few millions the club would end up spending, but would also give an opportunity for local players to play against colleagues who they most likely are to face in the Asian setting.
The constant anxiety surrounding the political situation, predominantly in the Middle East, has unfortunately trickled into the sport as well. Saudi Arabia has out rightly refused to travel to Iran for scheduled AFC Champions League bouts with respective Iranian sides due to the recent geo-political issue. And as it always had been the case in the region, if Saudi Arabia initiates, the rest of the GCC nations will follow suit.
And lastly there is a need to prevent the bickering between officials, or more so FIFA Presidential candidates into something that may disrupt the rhythm of Asian football. On one hand we have Jordanian Prince Ali’s attitude towards the game is encouraging considering his widely announced policies. And on the other we have Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman who is being associated as a person who is heedless to human rights concerns back in his home country.
The two have recently exchanged words with Prince Ali crying out foul on AFC signing a MoU with their African counterparts. The idea here was to create a platform for member states to share knowledge on different aspects between the two. Nothing wrong with that except for the fact that it was done between two individuals who are currently running for the position of FIFA’s President.
Of course, there is a lot more into Asia’s possibilities and apprehensions. Yet, the fact that the Asian members — are in favor of a ‘yes’ for now, despite the unwillingness of a certain few to work together — could be determining, not just for Asia’s future but that of global football. The stakes are high-pitched. But despite all its problems, AFC is an experiment without example: a getting together, after years of erratic conflicts, of 51 nations with distinct cultural heritages.