Why the AFF Suzuki Cup matters

Why the AFF Suzuki Cup matters

By Darren Goon (follow Darren on twitter @Box_to_Box)

Besides being the world’s largest continent, Asia is also home to about 4 billion people, spread out over 48 countries.

Singapore won their fourth AFF Suzuki Cup last week

Being so vast, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is split into four regions: Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia, Central and South Asia, and West Asia, each with their own regional tournaments to compete in, for when they’re not trying to qualify for the granddaddy of them all, the Asian Cup.

With 600 million inhabitants, Southeast Asia makes up just 16% of that total, but as we’ve seen over the past month during the AFF Suzuki Cup, the passion of ASEAN football fans is second to none.

But for all our footballing spirit and gusto, Southeast Asian national teams are ranked by FIFA in the mid-100s. Sure, we all know that the FIFA World Rankings isn’t the most accurate reflection of footballing prowess (according to them, England were the third-best team in the world in August ’12), but it does provide us with a sense of a nation’s position in the global football hierarchy.

As such, the chances of Malaysia (or any of our neighbours) flying the ASEAN flag at a World Cup is remote, and coupled with poor performances at the Asian Cup (on the rare occasions that we manage to qualify), amplifies the importance of the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup.

Regional tournaments can be particularly fierce, what with the close proximity between neighbouring countries and old political/social rivalries coming to the fore. Fans can, and will, do anything in their ability to help their teams win and thus, claim local bragging rights until the next edition rolls around.

Witness Malaysian fans shining lasers into the eyes of opposing Thai players; or the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup final, when Indonesian fans created an atmosphere so intimidating, Malaysian players had to enter the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in an armoured vehicle.

On the bright side, the AFF Suzuki Cup also provides fans with an opportunity to observe and appreciate the region’s finest footballers. Not many outside their native countries would have heard of players like Singapore’s Shaiful Esah or Thailand’s Theerathon Bunmathan before the tournament, but what a difference a month can make.

As John Duerden put it, the biggest hurdle Asian football faces, is turning Asian football fans into fans of Asian football. It’s common knowledge that most ASEAN football fans are huge proponents of the English Premier League, and they would rather watch televised foreign matches instead of those featuring their local clubs, let alone other regional leagues. And that’s understandable, because foreign football games are so easily attainable these days, and frankly speaking, the football on show is usually much more entertaining.

Exposure to ASEAN football leagues is also hindered by the language barrier and limited media coverage. Say, I wanted to watch a Thai Premier League game between Muangthong United and BEC Tero Sasana. Is it on the telly? Nope. It’s hard enough sifting through the Internet to locate a working stream, without having to find one with English commentary.

And what if I wanted to read about the match in a newspaper? Local media rarely file reports on other regional leagues because there just isn’t enough demand for them. This creates the classic “chicken/egg” conundrum. Most fans will remain apathetic until they’re supplied the knowledge and information to pique their interest; while information won’t be freely and easily available unless there’s sufficient demand. Which will come first?

It’s clear that a lack of interest is holding ASEAN football back. Even those fans that do spend a scintilla of their time reserved for the beautiful game on Asian football, focus solely on our own local leagues or national teams. We can be quite insular folk, only following the progress of our state FA teams, with attention on Southeast Asian football limited to who Harimau Muda play in the S-League next weekend. And there’s nothing wrong with putting the national game first.

This is why the AFF Suzuki Cup is so important. Of course, the main narrative of the AFF Suzuki Cup revolves around the quest to become the best in the region, but it also provided fans with an opportunity to recognise and observe footballers they normally wouldn’t be able to. To appreciate talents that would have been hidden away in their respective leagues if it weren’t for national team tournaments like this one. To open our eyes to the raw power of Kyi Lin, the trickery of Andik Vermansyah, the reliability of Baihakki Khaizan. Oh, Teerasil Dangda, where have you been all my life?

The events and festivities of the past month might not have made much of an impact on the world stage, but the AFF Suzuki Cup’s influence on its own region has gone from strength to strength. If you weren’t a fan before, you probably are now. And the 2013 SEA Games’ football tournament in Myanmar is only a year away!

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