Would A-League participation truly benefit Southeast Asia?

Paul Williams Paul Williams

Paul Williams takes a closer look at whether involvement in the A-League would truly benefit the likes of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It appears the memo announcing the death of the ASEAN Super League, a concept that had very little support across the region, hasn’t quite made its way to Australia.

Or maybe it has but the bright minds in Australia think they know better.

I talk, of course, of the idea of Perth Glory owner Tony Sage to expand the A-League to include teams in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, creating a pan-ASEAN league similar to the ASEAN Super League idea.

It’s the proposal that just won’t go away, not so long as the A-League owners think they can make a quick buck.

“It would greatly enhance the numbers of people watching and following our football and, most importantly, boost our broadcast revenue,” he told SBS The World Game.

The inherent arrogance and superiority in Sage’s comments is strong. The inference that the ‘ugly duckling’ (in this case, Southeast Asia) would welcome the attention, any attention, of the ‘school jock’ and jump at the chance to play in a ‘better’ league is offensive in the extreme, especially when the A-League has paid scant regard to the region since it was formed over a decade ago.

Has Sage, or any of the other A-League owners that have proposed this idea over the last few years, bothered to stop and ask the most basic question – do Southeast Asian teams even want to play in the A-League?

The assertion that hundreds of thousands of people, or more, would flock to support a team has no basis in reality. Firstly, you’re talking about four very different markets with four very different levels of interest in local football.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of people in Singapore that love football, but for the most part that is a love of European football. Domestically, the Singapore Premier League struggles for traction and relevance and attracts only small crowds. Are they suddenly going to turn out in large numbers for… in fact, who would they turn out for?

That’s the other question – who would these teams be? Existing teams? New franchises? If they’re new franchises, who will play for them? Presumably Sage wants the best players and best teams to ensure they generate the eyeballs he envisages. But are the best players going to leave their clubs for a new team in a foreign league?

If they’re existing teams, then what is the benefit in removing themselves from their existing league to play in a foreign league? Is the A-League going to be able to offer significant income and sponsorship opportunities to even tempt them to contemplate the move?

Additionally, we’ve seen from the experience in Singapore that foreign teams that win the league aren’t eligible to participate in continental competitions, which is why Albirex Niigata (S) aren’t playing in this year’s AFC Cup.

So any team that opted to play in the A-League would automatically remove themselves from continental competition, which seems counter-productive, especially to the bigger clubs in the region – the ones Sage would want to attract – like Johor Darul Ta’zim, Kitchee and Persija Jakarta that all have ambitions of doing well on the Asian stage.

That seems to be the point Sage is missing, and is symptomatic of Australia’s relationship with Asia since joining the AFC in 2006 – it’s all give and no take.

Sage thinks four teams from Southeast Asia would dramatically improve the A-League’s TV deal and generate extra income for the game in Australia, but he seems to have given little thought to what impact it would have on the teams or the game in Southeast Asia. It’s pure colonialism.

It’s somewhat ironic too that the A-League owners seem so keen on expanding into Southeast Asia too, given they are the ones who are resisting a move to genuinely increase the A-League’s engagement with the region, and all of Asia for that matter – the introduction of the +1 visa player rule.

Football Federation Australia has flagged the introduction of the +1 rule for the 2018/19 season, but the Australian Professional Football Club Association (APFCA), the body that represents the A-League clubs and owners, are furious in their disapproval.

APFCA chairman Greg Griffin, until recently a co-owner of Adelaide United, said recently the move would be “regressive” and “would act to hold back development” of the league. In a previous interview in 2017 he said, “…we see absolutely no point in going 4+1 and compromising the product we provide…”

Regressive? Compromising the product? Clearly Griffin thinks highly of Asian players.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

On the one hand they’re fighting tooth and nail to effectively stop Asian players from playing in the league (and yes, clearly the A-League clubs can already sign Asian players under the existing rules, but the evidence suggests they have little interest in doing so), but on the other are calling for four Asian teams to join the league just so they can earn more money.

If Sage and the other A-League owners genuinely want to engage Asia for mutual benefit, then there are plenty of things they, with support of FFA, can do – support the introduction of the +1 rule, actively engage to create relationships with clubs and leagues in the region, don’t talk down about regional tournaments, actively seek opportunities to host regional ASEAN tournaments and even look at ways Australia can participate in the AFF Suzuki Cup. In other words, be a genuine member of the region.

The FFA are doing plenty of good work in trying to form closer and long lasting relationships in the region, and those efforts aren’t helped by the comments we’ve seen from Sage, Griffin and company.

The A-League can have a fruitful and beneficial relationship with its neighbours in Southeast Asia, but that’s not done by looking to exploit the region for one reason and one reason only.