Right from its introduction in Asia, football, despite only being noticed late for its great ability to bring different cultures together, has been a source of inspiration for Asian populations, in particular from the viewpoint of economic and cultural development. Despite tradition dating it back to pre-imperial China, football spread in Asia – in its modern version – from the end of the nineteenth century and has been considered as a catalyser of regional and national identities ever since then, a symbol of strength and imperial power and a symbol of globalisation of the consumer culture starting to emerge in the East.
It was during and after the Second World War that sport, in particular football, started to be seen as a tool to unify peoples and to strengthen national identities, after many Asian countries won their independence. Some football events, such as the Merdeka Tournament or the Asian Cup, evoke a spirit of belonging to the nation and thus cause a rise in nationalist feelings among fans. It is no coincidence that today football is considered one of the main tools connecting differing traditions and cultures on the immense Asian continent.
Despite the great interest in football, Asian players have always been unable to gain international recognition. Apart from some fortunate cases such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Park Ji-Sung or Keisuke Honda – some of the Asian players who have managed to play in European championships – there haven’t been many Asian players leaving a mark in the sport. But this isn’t due to physical shortcomings or anything similar, as is widely believed in the West, but rather due to a different football culture in these countries compared to European and South American countries, where children are used, from a early age, to have a ball at their feet.
There is no reason why we should ignore the importance of Asian football which, in fact, thanks to the size of its population has a remarkable potential public and fan-based following. It is also a well-known fact that most of Asia’s football fans are more interested in the European or Latin American championships, a factor which can also benefit the Western football market.
A test on the importance of Asia for global football were the declarations, in 2003, by the former FIFA President Joseph Blatter who, at the launch of the AFC project called “Vision Asia” – promoted after the FIFA World Cup hosted by Korea and Japan in 2002 – stated that the future prosperity of global football resides in the development and introduction of a more professional game in Asia, since this continent has most of the world’s youth population with the highest economic potential globally.
Supporting Blatter’s words are those of the former president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammed Bin Hammam who, during the fifth Dubai International Sports Conference held in 2010, spoke of the development programme for Asian football. On that occasion the former AFC President, in presenting the development for the Vision Asia programme, reiterated the great success enjoyed by the project, increasing the number of professional clubs as well as of sponsors and income of the AFC, ending his speech with the words: “The future is for Asia”.
The Asian football market has therefore become — thanks to its growing economic and political power — one of the most important in the world. Attention is increasingly focussed on the East when we talk of football and there are many Asian fans and entrepreneurs who are fascinated by this world. Recently there have been numerous investments for and by Asian football, the consequence of which is increasingly emerging on a global scale.