Friday, March 5, 2010

The ASEAN dilemma

As ASEAN football experienced one of it worst year in recent time for the first time since 1988, no ASEAN football team will be at the Asian Cup Finals and this mean everybody will have an opinion and comment on what went wrong.

So I might as well join in as after the Jordan defeat of Singapore at Amman, it seem a lot of people have lot of comments about Singapore football but I want to look at it from a wider perspective.

First though it will be about the Lions.

The fact is Singapore remains in the ranks among the middle-tiers, which I bracket them after the last qualifiers – the World Cup qualifiers, for the Lions have matched their best qualifiers results – post East-West divide – of 6 points and we were getting the points from decent teams – Jordan and Thailand.

But now, the Lions faced the ASEAN dilemma which the Thai have been facing since they reached that point years ago, the inability to climb up the ladder to even join the middle group of the middle-tiers.

Before going on, I want to say it come as no surprise when it was the Arab nation who pined both the ASEAN powerhouse to the prized second spot as I had ranked the Jordanian above the Thai (Although AFC draw show a different perspective and a number of journalists, who were Euro central, ranked the Thai as the best hope because of then Thai coach Peter Ried)

Jordan were there – in my ranking as among the middle group of the middle-tiers – even as they failed to reach Asian Cup 07, because they have shown their potential over the years with a number of decent results even against the Asian powerhouses.

That is something the Thai and Lions as well those in the lower group of the middle-tiers have failed.

This is where the ASEAN dilemma comes in.

Firstly, the talk that players from this region do not like to venture out.

It is not as simple as that and it is a two way street for we must also remember due to the widely held view ASEAN players are ‘inferior’, clubs from those region who should be looking at our players are not interested.

This is what happens with a Thai player who went to Korea from S-league to try it out. He had impressed the coach who wanted to sign him but the Korean management, fearing the consequences if such a move were to fail, decided it was better to get a player from a stronger region; namely Brazil.

And, one cannot blamed them for if a S-league side were looking at players from Pakistan to Cambodia, I can bet every penny I have that a number of people will be jumping up and down and whacking the side as unambitious; the nicest word I can think of.

If ASEAN players cannot even move within our own region without the fear of being branded as ‘unambitious’, what are the chances other will want to even try you out.

Thus, it limits our exposure and potential.

Even at the nation level, it is the same problem.

The name of our region means we have a tougher time getting decent sides to play against as who can forget the Malaysia incident a while back when a African FA totally humiliated our neighbor by sending a club side as a national side just to ‘humor’ us.

If it was elsewhere, the chances of that happening are non-existent.

But it is also the fault of ourselves at times for one problem noted is how the ASEAN FAs love to set up all sorts of friendly Cup for whatever reason one can think off to play against such ‘quality’ sides.

Singapore have try to get around this problem by flying to other region to play better games since 2006, bar last year due to the Great Recession, and to be honest I would say it has a great effect in helping Singapore recent improvement against the West Asians.

The problem though is it is expensive and not a long term solution as our region remain weak; which mean we still have a tough time getting quality games.

Onto the next point and it focus on the fact we lacked a driver to drive ASEAN football forward.

The only nation capable of driving the region football forward is Indonesia for only it economy is big enough – It is among Asia Big 5 economy and it economy is bigger than the next 5 ASEAN nations combined – to achieve and support that.

As noted in the writeup of Asian football History, Asian football development, in term of league football, took off for a new high after the early 1990s as Japan enter the fray in the East in North Asia and Saudi Arabia enter in the West in the Gulf.

Certainly, no one can claim these regions were barren lands before that for Korea was developing it in the East while in the West it saw the likes of UAE and Kuwait.

But they never had the massive economic scale to bring their league to an admired (or in truth envy) level among their fellow foes thus their own region never followed in their steps.

It can be seem how after Japan enter the football arena, China finally took steps to develop their Jia A league (Now CSL) and it even forced Korea to refocus more on their own league as a result. In the West, it was no different as Iran, a foe of Saudi Arabia, ignores talks of whether professional football clash with their religion to enter the professional era.

Indonesian football cannot claim that even after the reform back in 2009 to enter the ACL fray. Instead, it still had many problems and it cannot be claimed it is far superior to S-league like the gaps between La Liga and Liga Sagres or BPL and SPL. (If that is gap in the first place as I believed S-league is the equal of Indonesian Super Liga)

That what missing in the ASEAN football arena and another part of the ASEAN dilemma.

Being a part of the ASEAN geography, Singapore cannot be naive to expect it can develop on it own without caring about other part of the region or else Australia will not depart Oceania and join AFC

But let not just talk about the problems and forget about the solutions for some are starting at it straight at it face.

Let start with the last problem first with ASEAN only need to look further south to an island (Some called it continent on it own already)

Yes. It is Australia and some will say it is not part of Asia but I am not interested in the politics and asked the 2 nations most well-known (One is south of Singapore and the other just north of us) in blocking FFA entry to AFF- what are you hoping to achieve. You are not part of the solution then do not be part of the problem.

Australia have the potential to be the driver of ASEAN football for currently we cannot even draw enough support from the media and sponsors, outside of Suzuki Cup, for our own competitions – ASEAN Club Championship is an example – but FFA have shown they can lead the way in that area so why are we shooting ourselves in the foot.

The solution is simple and it just needs pragmatism to take priority.

After that, how to expose our players to better competition thus improving as well as telling other regions our players are not 'inferior' and already, the new tougher qualifiers is the way.

We cannot stay in the hole like some are thinking with a blast back to the past with regional qualifiers or even worse, playing in the weaker AFC Challenge Cup.

One cannot get better playing weaker teams just for the hope of getting an easy ride to the Asian Cup Finals.

What use is it for us to be in the biggest competition of the AFC Arena if that is the case for we are hardly improving and that is what happen with the East-West divide of the past which buffer ASEAN from the stronger Western regional teams.

Our golden age was nothing compared to West Asia as they won the World Cup slots, Asian Cup and qualified for the Olympics and they do not even called it their golden age.

That why we need to play them more often at national and club level and at club level, the AFC Cup could be the saviour as thanks to a US$1 billion inject by WSG, there is now the money to expand not just ACL but AFC Cup as well and ASEAN should not be afraid to use our numbers to seek to influence to ensure some of that money is allocated to AFC Cup.

Only then more of our teams, and as well as more our players, can play in regional competition – 2 teams from S-league is not enough for even a small nation likes Singapore and I personally feel it should be something like 4.

This is the way forward as our leagues are still building it way.

But thoughts of more slots in the ACL should be discarded at this point as we are not good enough yet and ACL, being the golden goose (WSG will not have pay US$1 billion for AFC Cup) should be preserved.

The Arabs are now king of the Middle-tiers but we should not run from them for the solutions are already there.

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