World Soccer

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.

 ?? ?? Global event…an estimated worldwide audience of 65 million tuned in for Senegal’s victory in Cameroon
Global event…an estimated worldwide audience of 65 million tuned in for Senegal’s victory in Cameroon
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 ?? ?? Reigning Asian champions…Qatar won the 2019 AFC Asian Cup
Reigning Asian champions…Qatar won the 2019 AFC Asian Cup
 ?? ?? Big names…African superstars attract a global audience
Big names…African superstars attract a global audience
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