Europe to Asia: New lease of life or elephant’s graveyard?

Jermaine Pennant proved his worth for Tampines Rovers in their crucial AFC Cup win over Selangor FA – will the former Liverpool star be the first of many to head to Southeast Asia?

The National Stadium hosted one of the tensest fixtures in this season’s AFC Cup on Tuesday night with Tampines Rovers edging Selangor FA 1-0. Going into the match, Tampines coach V. Sundramoorthy said it was going to be like “a cup final”. With his side needing a win to qualify for the round of 16 and a draw being enough to book Selangor’s passage, the stakes were as high as One Raffles Place.

In the 31st minute, from the edge of the 18-yard box, Yasir Hanapi curled the ball into the top left-hand corner. Hanapi looked on, stunned by his sublime finish, before gathering himself and running to the corner flag to celebrate. The Singaporean side held on for the remainder of the match, not letting Billy Mehmet’s late sending off faze them.

Tampines overtook the Malaysian powerhouse for the final Group E qualifying spot and now hold the Causeway bragging rights. They will next face Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan Athletic Club.

In addition to the result, everyone’s focus was on the performance of the Mighty Stags marquee signing Jermaine Pennant. After being rested for the past two matches, it was the former Liverpool and Stoke City winger’s time to prove worthy of his SGD$480,000 annual salary.

In a ground akin to the heady heights of Europe, he showed his class. He got stuck into every Stags’ move, despite repeated fouls on him from Selangor’s notoriously hardened defence.

Not wanting to pin all hopes on their star signing, Sundramoorthy appreciates the value of Pennant. The player himself also acknowledges the weight he now carries telling The Straits Times, “I’ve stepped up since I’ve been here. You’ve got to deliver in games and every game I’ve played in, I have delivered.”

Since joining in January, the Nottingham-native has scored three, provided four assists and taken the Stags to second in the S.League. “I am here to try to make history… they want to achieve big. I want to be part of it,” Pennant said when he signed his one year contract.

From the man who played in the Champions League final, lacing up for Asia’s second-tier club competition appears to be a downgrade. But the 33 year old’s move to the Far East is far from an anomaly. Many players have moved to the Asiatic sphere to ply their trade.

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This diaspora can be traced back to the colonial heyday of Hong Kong. Instigated by Glaswegian expat Ian Petrie, three fellow Scotsmen landed at the now closed Kai Tak Airport in September 1970. They were Derek Currie, Jackie Trainer and Walter “Water Buffalo” Gerrard.

These men had all made names from themselves back in Britain. By answering Petrie’s call for recruits to join his Hong Kong Rangers outfit, the three Scots became the first professionals to play in Asia.

Over their distinguished careers, they established legendary status. Gerrard scored 37 goals in his debut season and in 1978 Currie became the first professional to represent the Hong Kong national side.

Gerrard also went down in local lore for his wit. When playing against Brazilian club Santos, Gerrard was substituted at the same time as Pelé (yes, that Pelé). As they walked off the field, Gerrard put his arm around the three-time World Cup winner and said: “Pelé, these coaches don’t know a good footballer when they see one.”
Playing in front of crowds of 30,000, these three Scots paved the way for top names to pack their bags and travel to the Orient.

Ironically, these new waves (rather ripples) of players arrived in Asia in the twilight years of their careers.

Class of ‘92’s Nicky Butt and bottom of the class’s Mateja Kezman both had rather lacklustre turns for South China. Nicolas Anelka currently player-manages Mumbai City FC where he continues to sulk. India is also where Freddie Ljungberg and Alessandro Del Piero saw out their playing days. Gary “underpants” Lineker had a brief spell with Nagoya Grampus Eight. Unlike some of the abovementioned players, the Leicesterian looks back on his time in Japan positively as a niggling foot injury would have limited his game time back in Europe.

Even managers have brought their career curtain down on the continent. Peter Reid took on the Thai national team, resigned, had a few years back in England, before a year-long stint at Mumbai City. He was succeeded in Thailand by Manchester United great Bryan Robson who finished with a 29% win percentage from a mere seven games.

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A myriad of reasons for journeying to Asia have been put forward by these leading lights of the game. Many cite the challenge of a new setting, a new style of play as attracting them to the region. When signing for Delhi Dynamos Del Piero told reporters, “”I’ve always looked for something different, I see myself as a ‘traveller on the roads of football’. For me, the pitch isn’t the only thing that counts, that what surrounds the game counts just as much.”

Legacy features heavily too. Much like the Beckham Effect in America, these footballing dignitaries hope to spread the quality of European football to foreign shores. Most players assume noble ambassadorial duties, providing coaching clinics and visiting schools; all at the same time as raising the profile of the game.

Then, of course, there’s the financial incentive. Butt was widely reported to be receiving a £200,000 weekly salary in Hong Kong and Tim Cahill pocketed US$10 million for his year at Shanghai Shenhua.

Tampines Chairman Krishna Ramachandra described Pennant’s contract as “one not typical to what we traditionally pay our players.” This is becoming strikingly evident as the club are tackling cash-flow issues, not helped by Pennant’s salary. Neither has employing Gérard Houllier as their International Ambassador or booking the 55,000-seater National Stadium for the Selangor match (over 10 times larger than their home Jurong West Stadium).
Ramachandra has approached the Football Association of Singapore for advances on subsidies and expects club expenses to SGD$2 million this season, compared to SGD$1.5 million for the average S.League club.

The issues arising at Tampines highlight the difficulty in finding the balance between bringing talented names to Asia and having the resources to manage the demands they have become accustomed to back in the European top flight.

Such issues do not appear to be a hurdle in China. Since announcing plans in February to develop an £500 billion industry, the building of a sporting dynasty has got underway. Five of this year’s top transfers to Chinese clubs have totalled £122 million. Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Ramires and Gervinho are among those to have made the move to the game’s prospective Middle Kingdom. 13 of 16 head coaches are foreign, including Sven-Göran Eriksson, as the Chinese Super League seeks to join the footballing elite.

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It’s all part of President Xi Jinping’s master plan to construct a soccer superpower. He has declared that by 2020, 50 million citizens will be playing the sport. Just to put that into context, that’s the entire population of South Korea…

This four-year plan brings the Asian game full circle. Trophy-laden players from around the world arriving across China harks back to that September in 1970 when Trainer, Currie and Gerrard arrived in the “Fragrant Harbour”. The continent has seen respected players replaced by has-beens to now fielding arguably some of the finest in the generation.

The standard of the Asian game has come on leaps and bounds since the days of the Hong Kong Crown colony. The arrival of these players in their prime may signal the beginning of a footballing revolution where the domino effect could spread throughout the region. It may take up to a generation to see the fruits of this endeavour. When that time comes, how many foreign stars will be in the East?

Cameron Tucker

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