Asia watches Africa Cup of Nations with envy
Global audience for AFCON leaves Asian football asking: why not us?
The world watched in February as Senegal defeated Egypt on penalties to win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. For those tuning in from Asia, there must have been more than a little twinge of envy at the international coverage the tournament received for three weeks. AFCON takes place every two years, in normal times, but still receives a good deal more international attention than the quadrennial Asian Cup. Further east, unless there is a major news story, there is little global coverage.
War-torn Iraq winning the 2007 tournament just four years after being invaded and with a team that represented its major religious communities stands out; it is not often that a sitting US President talks about Asian football. There was, to a lesser extent, some interest in Qatar winning the 2019 tournament at the home of the United Arab Emirates, one of the countries that were taking part in a diplomatic boycott against the 2022 World Cup. Much of the international interest in Asian football focuses on
the wider issues such as corruption, match-fixing or political interference from dictators or military juntas. There is still not much outside interest in the actual football.
Games from Africa in January and February were reported all over the international media. There were minuteby-minute reports, all games shown live by major broadcasters and analyses of football trends and styles. This may be a positive for African football but little of this applies when it comes to Asia’s big tournament.
Time zones help Africa but there is also the obvious fact that there are a lot more internationally recognisable African players. The final between Egypt and Senegal was billed, in part, as a mega meeting between Liverpool teammates Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Yet Senegal also had a team full of European stars who play for Chelsea, Milan, Napoli, Marseille, Paris SaintGermain, Bayern Munich and Leicester City. Even smaller nations like Gabon and Guinea can boast world-famous stars such as Naby Keita of Liverpool and Barcelona’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
AFCON then remains a much easier sell to an international audience simply because there are many more internationally recognisable faces there. Almost every game in the tournament, especially when the knockout stages get going, feature players familiar to all football fans.
Asian nations can’t match that in terms of either quantity or quality. Apart from South Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia, there are few eastern exports active in the west. Son Heung-min is the obvious and biggest name, and a clash between Japan and South Korea could see Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Celtic, Sampdoria, Bordeaux and Wolverhampton Wanderers represented on the pitch. Iran have Mehdi Taremi of Porto and new Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun plus a growing number of respected European-based stars, while the Socceroos have players all over the world – even if names like Tom Rogic, Aaron Mooy and Maty Ryan have not matched the careers and the stature of members of the so-called “golden generation” of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill. But other countries have yet to produce international stars.
Those same four Asian nations, as well as Saudi Arabia, monopolise the continent’s World Cup spots thanks
Almost every game in AFCON features players familiar to all football fans. Asian nations can’t match that in terms of either quantity or quality
to how qualification works and only one, Japan in 2018, have made the knockout stage since 2010. Since1994, apart from single appearances from China and North Korea – hardly the most accessible of teams for neutrals to get behind or journalists to cover – no other nation has represented the world’s most populous continent and told their stories to the watching billions. It will be the same in Qatar with only the hosts offering new faces and stories.
CAF has more diversity in terms of the representatives it sends to the World Cup. In this century alone, it has sent Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia, Togo, South Africa and Angola to the global stage. That’s12 compared to Asia’s seven.
Africa is seen much more purely as a football market while Asia, with its massive population and increasing spending power, is still regarded in more commercial terms. For years, signings of Japanese or Korean players have been greeted with talk of commercial possibilities and new revenue streams. This has lessened a little over the years but Asia is still seen more as a place to make money than to watch football.
Asia could do more to sell itself. There is a long and rich tapestry of football history (India’s Durand Cup, for example, is the third-oldest cup competition in the world) and culture in the continent’s scene but in terms of international interest, it is a long way behind Africa.