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Confusion reigns as ASEAN Super League prepares to kick off

Hafiz Sujad of Lions XII shoots during a match against Kedah on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore)

SEOUL -- The last time a southeast Asian nation qualified for the soccer World Cup was 1938. There is plenty of passion for the game in this huge region situated between India and China, but countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have fallen far behind one time rivals such as South Korea and Japan, now regarded as Asia's best.

     In the hope of raising standards, soccer bosses in the region are launching a new competition for clubs, to be known as the ASEAN Super League. The league is due to kick off in August 2016 and will feature teams from most of the 12 nations that make up the ASEAN Football Federation, which is associated with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations but operates independently.

     Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam will each contribute one or two clubs, and East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, is thought to be considering joining later. Australia, the 12th AFF member, will not take part.

Lions XII players pose for a photo during a game. From left to right; Madhu Mohana, Khairul Nizam, Gabriel Quak and Safuwan Baharudin (Courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore)

     At the moment, however, there are few concrete details about the new tournament, even though its launch is less than a year away. "I have heard of the ASEAN Super League," said Dollah Salleh, coach of the Malaysian national team until his resignation on September 5, "But I know nothing about it."

     World Sports Group, a Singapore-based sports marketing company that has been working with the AFF to help launch the league, refused requests to comment. WSG announced on Sept. 15 that it had been acquired by Lagardere Sports, part of the French media group Lagardere. The Singapore Football Association, the main driver behind the project, also declined to talk publicly even though Zainudin Nordin, its president, is head of an AFF committee working on the new competition.

     It is not yet confirmed whether the members of the league will be existing teams that already play in the region's domestic leagues or whether most will be new "franchises" created specifically for the competition. It is also yet to be announced how the international league will be connected to the existing domestic leagues around the region, if it all.

     Yet there is optimism despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of clear information. Alex Weaver, the coach of Warriors FC, the champion club of Singapore's S.League, believes it could help the game in the country -- especially as some observers believe the S.League is struggling to maintain its status as a fully professional league in the face of falling attendances and interest.

     "If other countries put decent teams into the league then it could be good for Singapore football -- I imagine the S.League would become officially semi-professional and act as a feeder league," said Weaver.

     "The money spent on the S.League would be put toward the [super league] team and therefore automatically put those players on a much higher income range."

Big earners

Weaver believes that well-paid role models are essential if soccer is to prosper. "A lot of Singaporeans really look at status in society. Maybe creating this team with big earners will motivate more people to play the game and create a better selection pool at the younger ages."

Izzdin Shafiq of Lions XII, center, during a game against Kedah on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore)

     It has been reported in the Singapore media that Singapore's Lions XII team, made up of some of the country's best young players, will move to the ASEAN Super League from the Malaysia Super League, in which it currently plays. Lions is the most popular soccer team in Singapore but some believe that its participation in the Malaysian league diverts attention, talent and support away from the S.League.

     Steve Darby, who has extensive experience of coaching in southeast Asia, worries that if a region-wide super league is seen as more lucrative and important than domestic leagues that could have damaging consequences. "The danger is like in Singapore, where the Lions concept may be good for the players -- or 25 of them -- but it has killed the S.League."

     Darby believes that the ultimate success of the new tournament will depend on how it is organized. "A lot depends on the fixture planning and the acquisition of players -- a complex problem as you have an already crowded calendar with local leagues, Cup [an annual tournament run by the Asian Football Confederation] and international competitions. Add to that monsoon seasons, Ramadan and Chinese New Year and you have many complex organizational problems."

     Then there is Indonesia, which accounts for almost 40% of ASEAN's population of about 625 million people. The country was banned from international competitions in June after FIFA, soccer's global governing body, ruled that there had been government interference in the running of the game. That means that Indonesian clubs cannot participate in the super league, unless FIFA has a change of heart.

     "It won't be a genuine super league unless there are Indonesian clubs there," said Jakarta-based football broadcaster and writer Pangeran Siahaan."Not only is Indonesia the biggest country in the region with the most fans, Indonesian clubs are also among the best."

     Despite that, Siahaan said he supported the super league concept, noting that Indonesia could join at a later date. "I welcome a new regional competition simply because the quality gap between southeast Asian clubs and the rest of the region is too big. Providing a more balanced international competition could benefit football in the region itself."

     Darby, currently head coach of Laos, said he hoped that the smaller footballing powers in the region would not be forgotten. For countries such as Laos and Cambodia, with weaker domestic leagues and infrastructure, the opportunity for regular tests against better opposition would be welcome.

     "If Laos or Cambodia or Brunei had their national teams in that league plus good foreign professionals then the players would surely benefit. It has many positive possibilities for Laos ... anything that gets higher standards for the players and off-field club organization must be good for the game."

     Many fans in the region would probably agree. For the moment, however, they will have to wait and see.

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