Association football may be the most popular sport in the world but in many regions the development of the game remains a work in progress. For countries that are still trying to build their own football culture, the very globalisation of the game can sometimes have the opposite effect on local football.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
Since its inception, association football has rapidly spread to all four corners of the globe, where in the majority of countries it reigns as the number one sport. Although, in many nations, football is still developing, especially at the professional level.
But even in these regions, football is still incredibly popular. You only have to look at the pre-season tours and exhibition matches involving big European clubs that have become commonplace in many of these areas. Fans will sell out stadiums just to catch a glimpse of foreign stars.
It certainly speaks to the love for the game around the world, but once the fanfare is over and teams and promoters have made their money, what impact does this have on the local game? What does it mean for countries that are still trying to build their own football culture?
To explore these questions we’re going to focus on particular regions where this issue is most prevalent. First up, Singapore.
Neil: The current Singapore football scene, to be frank, is in an absolute mess.
James: This is football writer and author, Neil Humphreys.
Neil: Recently we had our Football Association of Singapore council elections for the first time ever. And the reason it was the first time ever is because even FIFA had to intervene and say ‘look, your councils are supposed to be entirely independent with no political interference.’ And previously our FAS President and so forth were always appointed by the government, which goes against FIFA regulations.
So we’ve just recently held our first elections and they were farcical because here we’ve got our first ever independent elections and the guy - the only guy standing against the incumbent was arrested during the election campaigning because of alleged irregularities with his gaming operations. It kind of summed up nicely where we are.
And meanwhile I have to tell you that this was front page news for days, but the actual S-League itself - Singapore’s only professional sports league I might add - was utterly irrelevant. Nobody watches it, nobody cares about it, it’s attendances are through the floor. If you get a few hundred people watching each game - a few hundred people! - you might be lucky. That’s where we’re at. We’ve got a league that’s dying, there’s no finances involved, there’s very little public involvement, there’s very little media involvement. Nobody cares. It’s on its knees.
James: It’s important to note that prior to the S-League, competitive football in Singapore dates back to at least 1921 with its involvement in the Malaysia Cup.
Neil: It competed in the Malaysia Cup until 1994 and that was very, very popular because you had a century old causeway rivalry between two local nations. And then Singapore left and went on their own. And when they set up on their own, they did so many things wrong. Firstly they set up sides that communities could not identify with. So you had an armed forces side, a uniformed side. Then you had a side that represented the home Ministry, the Home United. So straight away that was considered a government side, so nobody liked that team either.
James: Despite a lack of connection with local communities, the early days of the S-League in the late 1990s were reasonably successful, with average attendances of around 4-5k. But then a multitude of factors disrupted the football landscape.
Neil: First you had the Asian currency crisis of ‘97/‘98. Then at the same time you had the explosion of the internet, which exposed Singaporeans to the English Premier League for the first time, as it probably did in Australia too. That coincide with the explosion of cable television. So you had all these factors that Singapore couldn’t control, when literally overnight - and it was almost overnight - you had a declining S-League because of financial downturn. And the fact that there’s a bit of a disconnect with the communities anyway.
Then you move into the early 2000s, you had things like further economic downturns, you had the SARS virus crisis. And then if you put all of that under one umbrella, we just do not have a sports culture. We have a sports betting culture, but we don’t necessarily have a sports culture. So when you put all that together, you end up with a situation you have now where you have an S-League that is basically struggling for survival.
James: And yet, the passion for football in Singapore is without question.
Neil: The English Premier League has never been more popular that it is now. I mean, it’s ridiculous in a way, but I could spread it across South East Asia. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam. Possibly even Myanmar and Laos to a certain extent. Their national sport is the English Premier League. Which is obviously a contradiction in terms, but it is. If you go to any night market in any of these countries you’ll see knock off Man Utd, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City jerseys.
And you gotta remember that some of these clubs goes decades back. But it’s only exploded and become more entrenched in the last decade or so. And you add that onto the fact that there are a plethora of online legal and illegal betting agencies - and my god do we love to gamble in this part of the world, my god, it is a national pastime.
So you’ve got the fact that the national sport is essentially the English Premier League and then number two would be European football, generally. But we get every single EPL game live. We get everything. We get every major international fixture, we get South American football, we get French football. It is insane, the coverage we get of European football. We get more access - more access to European football than we do to S-League football, it is utterly ridiculous. Because it’s classic supply and demand. Everything goes in the EPL’s favour in this part of the world, you know?
James: Moving further north, things are a little more positive.
The local football scene in China is enjoying a healthy period of growth and significant investment.
Cameron: I’d say football in China is going in the right direction. Right now, obviously, there’s a lot of attention from overseas, built up over the past eighteen months with the big money transfers coming here.
James: This is Cameron.
Cameron: Cameron Wilson, and I’m the founding editor of Wild East Football which is the, pretty much the only English language website looking at Chinese football.
I think the most important thing to say though is, Chinese football has been - had a culture for the last twenty years or so, since the professional league started here. So there is quite a depth of fan culture which I think the outside world doesn’t really pick up on. And I think it’s that kind of base which has made the league quite strong today, in terms of the fans.
The playing side, obviously China really struggles because not as many people play the game in China as you might think and there’s a bit of a pretty shallow talent pool. But things are improving slowly.
James: Youth development in China is becoming more of a focus, with the Chinese FA placing a limit on the number of foreign players top clubs are allowed to sign. And there’s no doubt that the country's population plays to its advantage. But things aren’t so simple.
Cameron: There’s a big difference between the culture of watching football and the culture of playing football. I’d say Chinese people love football and they love to watch it. But there’s not that culture of playing it, where like, if for example you go to Brazil or even some European countries you’ll find people play football in the street or play football anytime, anywhere they can.
But that just simply isn’t like that in China. People just don’t have the habit. And also there’s kinda social reasons as well. Like, Chinese parents don’t really like their kids to do anything in their spare time, other than to study, because there’s such a pressure to get a good result at school, get into a good university, get a good job. Then have good salary to look after your parents when they get older. That’s a big thing in China so there’s some fairly unusual pressures here which don’t really exist elsewhere.
James: But the growing strength of the Chinese Super League may be the country's biggest asset, giving kids something to aspire to.
Cameron: A strong local league helps focus culture and built a stronger connection between communities and the clubs and I think that is key to getting kids to fall in love with football. I mean, people always talk about “Oh, when are we gonna see the ‘Chinese Messi’?” or whatnot. Kids are inspired by Messi’s and Ronaldo’s but they need the “Chinese Messi”, they need to see a Chinese star, and he’s a homegrown star. There’s nothing more powerful than that and having a really strong domestic league is the best way to find that.
James: Another country in a similar position of growth but facing its own unique challenges, with a very different culture and football history is the United States.
Jason: Soccer in the United States is a growing thing. It’s obviously getting bigger and better and more into the culture on a daily basis, people care about soccer a little bit more every day, sort of across the vastness of the United States and obviously the size of the population.
James: This is Jason Davis.
Jason: Soccer broadcaster in the United States.
It is also very...very divided, in terms of what kind of soccer people care about. Whether it is the professional game - and then that has a myriad of variations of course. Whether you are a Premier League fan or a La Liga fan or a Bundesliga fan. Perhaps you like Mexican soccer - very popular here in the United States for obvious reasons.
Obviously Major League Soccer is growing and getting better but quality-wise, isn’t there yet - has its ardent supporters, but is always sort of the little kid on the block when it comes to getting attention. And then there’s youth soccer and college soccer womens football, obviously is a big thing here. And there seems to be a little slice for everybody but it means that this sport is often supported by people who are disconnected from one another.
James: Would you say there’s a divide between those who are focused on the local game and people who care only about European teams?
Jason: I think there are pan soccer fans that will go out and watch anything available to them, and they’re not necessarily discriminating. I think there’s - there are a lot of people in this country who are very European focused. And it may not even be that they look down their noses at the domestic version of the sport or wouldn’t give it the time if it were local to them or maybe accessible. But they are tuned in to the most glamourous version of the game and that’s certainly the European super clubs.
The most popular league on television here in the United States is the Mexican league. And that’s largely because of the connections that people have from Mexico who now live here in the United States. It’s a good brand of football, it has passionate supporters, there and here. And you know, when we talk about who cares about what in the United States when it comes to this game, it’s not a monolith, it’s very diverse, it’s very spread out. And some people buy into the notion of live and local and supporting what is here and some people don’t.
And there are plenty of American soccer fans - and this is their right as soccer fans to care about anything they want to - there’s plenty of them who care more about who Liverpool has in their youth team than whether the United States ever wins a soccer game in an international tournament. That’s just the way that they are.
James: So, three countries with varying football cultures and there are many more like them, including my own, in Australia. All with their own domestic leagues and trying to compete for attention in an ever shrinking world. And that is only being reinforced when foreign clubs come to visit.
Whether it’s the Premier League, International Champions Cup or individual clubs themselves, these off-season tournaments and large scale football tours are becoming increasingly widespread - and they don’t look like they’re going away.
Jason: I don’t think these tournaments are going anywhere for a very long time. I mean, it is a big enough country, there are still plenty of people who are willing to throw down 100, 200, 500 dollars, perhaps even more to go out and watch either their team or the team that’s coming to their particular area that happens to be a big club.
Michael: It’s all part of this enormous marketing machine, this huge business juggernaut that will just roll in, and it sucks - it sucks publicity, it sucks money, it sucks interest away from the local game.
James: This is Michael Church, a freelance journalist in Hong Kong. He’s covered Asian football for over 20 years.
Michael: In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the local game has been mismanaged for so long by so many people, that they’re able to do this.
James: And for these countries where local football is already struggling, what chance does the game have to grow when so much attention is given to overseas clubs?
Michael: The Hong Kong FA, to my mind, should not be allowing this to happen. They should not be allowing the Premier League to come in, on mass and have no local representation in the game whatsoever - not even the referees. I mean, it’ll all be the Premier League roadshow, you’ll basically take four Premier League teams, drop them into the middle of Hong Kong and everybody will turn out to watch. But there’s no benefit to Hong Kong football, none whatsoever.
James: Occasionally in tournaments like the ICC, you will see local teams represented. But in areas like Asia and the US, these matches are hosted during the local season. Which is pretty disruptive. That just would not happen in Europe.
Neil: Not only does it not benefit the local game, really, financially at all. I would argue that it has a detrimental effect on the local game because it just reinforces the chasm in standards, between that level of football and local football. I mean it actually does, people say this to me, you know, “oh I watched that game between Juventus and Singapore and it just showed me again how rubbish our local football is.
James: Even in a country like the United States with a reasonably strong local football scene, outside influences still have a significant impact.
Jason: I want to hold back from being overly critical, I don’t blame the clubs for coming. The real market for these things only popped up in the last twenty years. But I think that it does have sort of detrimental effect on people attaching themselves to an MLS club or even a second or third division club here in the United States. And I do think there’s a tragic element to that because we are not going to move as fast as a soccer country as we could until we are sort of maximising or getting closer to maximising the full weight of that interest.
We never had the opportunity to develop a culture in a bubble that was walled off from influences from around the globe, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, in some cases those influences can be positive. But it means we didn’t earn a confidence in our own culture. The British took the game to all four corners of the globe and in places like Italy and Argentina and Brazil and Spain and Holland, it grew up inside a culture. There was no instantaneous communication.
You couldn’t watch to see what the other countries were doing. You had to figure out how you wanted to approach the sport and it allowed for variation of style and tactics and the passions to be inflamed among the supporters in ways that didn’t mean, “well, are we good enough? Are we doing it the right way? Are the English judging us? Are the Italians judging us? Are the Mexicans judging? - and American soccer has a serious inferiority complex that feeds into our need to attach ourselves to the biggest clubs possible. Which then feeds into the efficacy of a summer tournament that brings Real Madrid and Barcelona to Miami where tickets prices are $2,000.
James: It’s pretty simple. This is all about money. Where there’s money to be made, these promoters and commercial entities are more than happy to exploit local fans. That’s the reality. But as the fans, we do have a say in that.
Cameron: Are you into football or are you into the glamour of these big sides? I’m not trying to say that people who support - who live in China or live in Australia and support Man United are stupid or anything, it’s not that. I just think they’re missing out.
James: I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with supporting an overseas club. In many cases, people have a family connection or have been following a foreign club longer than their local team has existed. And that’s okay. But to neglect the game on your own doorstep - whether that’s grassroots or your own national team - goes against the whole idea of football as a global sport.
Neil: Without getting too pretentious about it, I mean sport in its very essence should be about a point of connection. Otherwise, what is the point of an Olympics, what is the point of having nationalities within sport, right? You’re losing that connection, that point of identity.
Michael: I think it’ll really hurt the game in the long term and I genuinely think that these teams and these organisations coming to this part of the world has had a hugely detrimental effect to the game in these areas. I dunno, I just- I’m not comfortable with it. I think with the people that I talk to and the countries that I travel to, the things that I’ve been very fortunate to see. So many countries complain about the lack of funding going into the game. What’s left to go into the local game? They’re straggling the local game, they’re killing it. And something needs to change.
James: People are really missing out on a local experience and if that game is going to develop in these areas, where the game isn’t as strong locally, it needs support and it’s not going to flourish if people don’t care about it.
Michael: What’s important? Diversity and having a local connection where people actually feel fulfilled and involved and contributing to a community that looks after itself and develops - or, as you say, or is it just about lining the pockets of people who are already rich? I mean it it’s part of a much, much, much bigger conversation that is actually happening globally at the moment anyway.
James: I think, yeah, I think the globalisation of the world, to an extent can’t be stopped. That’s just the nature of progress. But football should be different, football should be protected.
Michael: When all is said and done, we’re you know, we’re football fans and you want to watch the best playing against the best. But there also has to be a realisation too, that there’s nothing better than sitting on the halfway line and being able to smell the freshly cut grass, hearing boots actually connect with a ball in a way that TV microphones could never pick up. And you know, being surrounded by 500, 5,000, 50,000, 100,000 like-minded individuals who are there to watch a game. And the electricity that comes from that. And the expectation and the vibe and the buzz and the passion and everything that comes with it, the whole match day experience. And people who limit themselves to watching European football on TV, to my mind they’re missing out.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. And many thanks to Neil Humphreys, Cameron Wilson, Jason Davis and Michael Church.
Music featured in this episode comes from Little Glass Men and Podington Bear under creative commons.
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