Will Southeast Asia become a football superpower?

After decades of languishing in the footballing wilderness, Asia appears to be discovering a taste for the sport at last. In particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have seen a rapid rise in the profile of football in the region and a sharp increase in the improvement of its leagues. Regional clubs are snapping up promising young players who graduated from prestigious European academies, while the number of Asian starlets travelling in the opposite direction is also on the up.

But while the standard of football in ASEAN nations is improving in tandem with the sport’s popularity, even the best leagues are still limping far behind those in Europe. Bringing in foreign coaches and players will help to boost the quality further, while exporting the cream of the ASEAN crop will also be instrumental in pulling the region up by its bootstraps. However, for that to happen, the countries in question need to develop more appropriate legal frameworks and infrastructure to facilitate the transfer of their best and brightest talents to Europe and elsewhere.

Rising tide

Traditionally, football has not enjoyed the same popularity in Southeast Asia as it has in other parts of the world. Badminton and baseball are more highly regarded, alongside martial arts, and sports unique to the region. However, in recent times the “beautiful game” has seen a surge in popularity, thanks in part to initiatives like the Premier League’s Asia Trophy. First launched in 2003, the tournament features some of the best teams from England and has worked to garner significant fanbases in Asia

This is nowhere more pronounced than in the ASEAN region. In particular, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are home to legions of football fans, with the trio comprising three of the six nations responsible for half of the 1.6 billion Asians who watched the 2018 World Cup. It’s unsurprising, then, that those three are rumoured to be teaming up with Malaysia and Singapore to launch the first ever five-nation bid for the 2034 World Cup.

While there is an argument that these kinds of prestigious events cost host nations more capital than they earn in revenue, there’s no doubting how they can raise the profile of a nation as a tourist destination, as well as generate local interest about the sport itself. With the world’s fifth biggest economy and a population of 634 million, the ASEAN region is well-placed to capitalise on football’s popularity.

Two-way transfer traffic

Indeed, in some places, it’s already doing so. Regional cups are normally dominated by Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, yet there are signs that other nations are closing the gap. In Cambodia, for example, the domestic champions are investing in grassroots and youth football in a bid to improve their standard. This approach has been rather successful since they will contest three international competitions this year. Filipino team Global Makati FC went on a spending spree, signing two young graduates from the coveted academies of Liverpool and Manchester United. Other Asian clubs have been following suit, snapping up some accomplished names from the European leagues and beyond.

Also notable is the fact that transfers in the opposite direction are also on the rise. The region’s most expensive footballer is currently goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who kept 10 clean sheets across the 38 league games for Cardiff in the Premiership last season and has an estimated value of €7.2 million.

Interest in ASEAN footballers has been increasing across Europe in recent years, with England particularly proactive in encouraging their development. The “Bringing Opportunities to Communities” scheme was launched in 2015 to try and stimulate interest in football among Britons of Southeast Asian descent.

The initiative has thus far produced only minor results, partly because Asian football player agents have been slow to catch on, despite the fact that a good rep can change a player’s whole career. Take for instance South Korean Son Heung-min, who has become a vital figure at Tottenham, garnering interest from current Premiership leaders Liverpool, in part due to the work done by his agent Thies Bliemeister. The German has been with Son since the beginning of his senior career in Germany coming from Korea, and has been pivotal to get the talented player to his current squad position in the UK.

Top-down reform required

While the European leagues continue to be the cream of the football crop, this may not forever be so. According to football agent Bakari Sanogo – who has helped his nephew, Moussa Sissoko, to become vital pillar at Tottenham since securing him the career-defining €35 million transfer in 2016 – thinks that this may be partly due to China’s Super League becoming more interesting to Asian players. “The Super League is a championship of the future”, especially since their teams are gaining in quality. As such, Sanogo says, “it is in China that the rise [of football] will be the most spectacular.”

For now, players from East and Southeast Asia are still yearning for Europe. Having reliable agents providing access to Europe’s top clubs are a cornerstone of opening up Asia as a viable talent pool, but they’re only part of the equation. The business of transferring players from one club to another is complicated enough when it takes place on a domestic footing, and even more so when moving between continents.

That’s especially true of the ASEAN region, where differing – even inadequate – legislation makes the endeavour a minefield. In order for success stories like Son to take place on a large scale in Southeast Asia, governments must work alongside clubs to implement reforms geared towards ensuring that gifted players are allowed the opportunity to reach their full potential in an environment with appropriate facilities for them to do so.

At present, that environment is decidedly European, but the boom in Southeast Asian football means the region could convert itself into the next big thing for the beautiful game a decade or two down the line.

Image credit: Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy/Flickr