Asian Football Confederation to celebrate 60 years
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — While 2014 won’t be considered a vintage year for Asian football, continental organizers still have plenty to celebrate this weekend when they reflect on how far the game has come since 1954.
As always, however, politics and controversy will not be too far away.
In Manila six decades ago, 12 nations came together to form the Asian Football Confederation. Now 46 member associations, hundreds of delegates, players, officials and Sepp Blatter, head of the game’s world governing body, will attend the party in the Philippines.
The fact Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran went winless at the World Cup in June has not dampened the mood, with AFC president Sheik Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa vowing to improve standards.
“We had a disappointing World Cup in terms of performances but Asia, I think, does tend to surprise,” he said recently. “We’re looking at ways in which we improve the overall level of football in the continent ... there will be better results for Asia in future.”
In the 60 years since the AFC was formed, professional leagues have been established all over the continent and started producing players who can be seen in the big leagues of Europe. Asia’s growing financial muscle increasingly attracts famous world stars to join clubs from the Gulf to China, India, Japan and Australia.
Despite the poor showing in Brazil, Asian powerhouses Japan, South Korea and Australia have reached the latter stages of previous World Cups. Japan and South Korea hosted the 2002 tournament, when the South Koreans made the semifinals, and the World Cup is due to return to the continent in 2022 in Qatar.
“The AFC has only been getting (serious) recognition in the world of football and business in the last decade,” Lou Sticca, managing director of Tribal Sports, a Sports Marketing company based in China and Australia, told The Associated Press. “By 2022, the AFC will have had two World Cups and given the growing importance of China and others, there will likely be more. That exemplifies the financial power that Asia is now wielding globally.”
There could be more political power to come if, as has been reported in the British media, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, a FIFA Vice-president, decides to challenge Blatter for the top job in football administration. Al Hussein is also expected to run in the AFC elections in May to preserve his seat on the world governing body’s powerful executive committee. There are expected to be at least five other candidates vying for the three seats up for grabs and election campaigns, formal or otherwise, will step up a gear in Manila.
As well as the battles for power and influence and the constant drive for development around the continent, there are long-standing issues that need to be addressed. Asia is regarded as one of the world’s hotspots for match-fixing. The most recent scandal has been in Vietnam, but even continental heavyweight South Korea endured a high-profile episode in 2011.
Declan Hill, a noted expert on match-fixing, said the problem was deep-rooted and widespread.
Hill said the AFC and national federations had been ignorant to the problem in the past but needed now to be proactive: “It has to stop, otherwise all of football is at risk.”
The treatment of players in parts of the region is another issue. Players in Japan and Australia, and other leading leagues, are usually treated well but standards are inconsistent. In 2012, Diego Mendieta, a Paraguayan player in Indonesia, died reportedly after his club’s failure to pay his salary meant he could not afford medical bills.
“There are so many more opportunities for players in Asia than ever before,” said Brendan Schwab, chairman of FIFPro Asia, an organization that represents thousands of players worldwide. “However, in too many countries, a lack of good governance means that the game’s commercial opportunities are not being fully realized.
“This also leaves players vulnerable to abuse, non-payment, unilateral contract terminations and poor medical treatment. Threats to the integrity of sport such as match manipulation are also disproportionately present in parts of Asia,” added Schwab, who has called for the development of independent players’ associations at national level.
The players at the top level of Asia have other things on their mind in Manila. The Asian Player of 2014 will be named on Sunday. On the final shortlist of three are Nasser Al Shamrani of Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s Khalfan Ibrahim and Ismail Ahmed of the UAE. There was some surprise in Australia at the omission from the shortlist of Ante Covic, the goalkeeper who starred as Western Sydney Wanderers won the continental club title and was voted most valuable player of Asian Champions League. Wanderers boss Tony Popovic is, however, in the running for Coach of the Year.