Ball keeps rolling for Asian football


LONDON The legacy of the summer of 2002 is bearing mid-winter fruit. 

Japan has announced profits of ¥5.5 billion (US$46.6 million) from staging its half of the World Cup. It proposes to invest the money in a memorial hall in Tokyo symbolizing the year world soccer came to the East. 

South Korea has kept the ball rolling with a historic North versus South Korea game in Seoul last September, and with a match against world champion Brazil, also in the Seoul World Cup Stadium in November when the Koreans put up a spirited performance in losing, 3-2. 

And there is a growing trade between East and West. Players are following the old advice to “Go West, Young Man!” Stars of three East Asian leagues – Japan, Korea and China – have been siphoned away to the moneyed clubs of Europe. 

It is a process with one eye on untapped Asian potential, and the other on the burgeoning television and mobile telephone markets in the Far East. 

MAKING IT IN THE WEST: The exploits of Sun Jihai at English Premier League club Manchester City and Li Tie (Below right) at Everton have fanned the imagination of Chinese Football fans and others in Asia too.

This month, when Everton, which has a Chinese sponsor, played Manchester City, neither of them contenders, in an English Premier League match, 350 million people apparently switched on for “live” transmission of the action. 

Many of them were peering through that television keyhole in the middle of their night to catch glimpses of the fine passes that Li Tie distributes for Everton, or the high energy that Sun Jihai maintains on the right of Manchester City’s midfield. 

“Sun and Li are the two best Chinese players in the world,” said Kevin Keegan, the City manager. 

In his time as a player, Keegan was exported from Liverpool to Hamburg, where he became known as Mighty Mouse for his work ethic and boundless enthusiasm. 

He knows something about converting to a new language and a new lifestyle. But how can he judge the best in China?  

It is a land of 1.3 billion people, and few of them have license to travel, much less to play with the best in sport. 

It will be interesting to see if Sun Jihai and Li Tie are released by their Western paymasters to take part in a the prestigious encounter Feb 12 between China and Brazil in Guangdong. 

A fascinating and ambitious affair, this match between World Cup novice and World Cup winner is, according to the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper, costing the Chinese US$1.25 million as a match fee to lure the Brazilians.  

This week, which happens to be the second anniversary of a “White Paper on China’s Football,” the entrepreneurs who arranged the match promised that Brazil would be at full strength. 

This means that Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo would return to Asia for a one-night stand. So will Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Gilberto Silva. They are required by Brazil for its first international under new management – or rather under the combined efforts of Carlos Alberto Parreira and Mario Zagallo, men who have guided Brazil to the sweet nectar of soccer’s ultimate prize in the past and who have just agreed to replace Luis Felipe Scolari. 

Big Phil, as Scolari is known, has moved on to coach Portugal. His players have dispersed to their clubs, mostly in Europe’s elite leagues. 

The Real Madrid duo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, are becoming true marathoners of the air miles between East and West.  

In December they played in Tokyo, where Real was crowned world club champion. On Feb 12 they are due in Guangdong, China.  

Three days later they and the rest of Real Madrid's team are scheduled to play a friendly in Beijing. Once again, the fee is a seven-figure dollar sum. 

The trade within trade has even more lucrative spinoffs. 

Many a European club, from Manchester United to Juventus to Real Madrid, are competing for the Asian market. Manchester United set up shop there with the Red Devil superstores in Singapore and Bangkok.  

They compete for the currencies of the East for their merchandise; a range of products from toilet soap to underwear bearing the United logos. 

A sculpture of David Beckham in chocolate was encased in glass, as a pre-Christmas gimmick to sell a new confectionery range in the Ginza district of Tokyo.  

Soon, Sun Jihai, star of the East, will pit his tigerish running against the skills of Beckham in the Manchester “derby” between United and City. 

Li Tie.

It is one game and one world but there are a lot of camouflaged financial agendas. 

When China issued its White Paper two years ago, it declared its intent to turn the world’s largest population into a force in the world’s most popular game. It itemized a five-year plan, from coaching infants to building a progressive structure, to competing on the world stage. 

The World Cup 2002 came embarrassingly early in that cycle. Bora Milutinovic, the peripatetic Serb who worked his small miracle in helping China to qualify for that tournament, was not re-engaged after China, without a goal and without anything to write home about, failed to register results on a par with the Koreans and the Japanese. 

When China met Brazil in the first round, it was like watching a grape being squashed by a sumo wrestler. Brazil barely broke a sweat as it won, 4-0. 

Full marks, then, for bravery, or misguided ambition, that the Chinese have spent so little time and so much money in asking Brazil to help it see in the Lunar Year of the Goat.  

It is a tough baptism for Arie Haan, once an accomplished player with Ajax Amsterdam and twice a World Cup finalist in 1974 and 1978. 

Haan is the new trainer of China, presumably on rather more than the 160 yuan (US$19) per day that his players receive for national team duty.  

If the Dutchman’s timing is right, he could become as revered in the east as Guus Hiddink, his countryman, became in South Korea last summer. 

After all, there are more Chinese in the world than any other nationality. And soccer is the simplest and most adaptable game on earth.  

Meanwhile, Humberto Coelho, the former Portugal coach, has agreed to head the South Korean national team, The Associated Press reported from Lisbon. 

Coelho, who steered Portugal to the semi-finals of the European championships in 2000, agreed to terms late on Monday after two days of meetings with South Korean officials in Lisbon, the Portuguese sports daily A Bola said on Tuesday on its Web site. 

“It’s a done deal,” Coelho told the paper. “It’ll be a great challenge.” 

Guus Hiddink, who led South Korea to the semi-finals of the World Cup, left after the competition to coach PSV Eindhoven. 

Coelho said he would travel to Holland to speak to Hiddink. 

Coelho, a former defender at the Lisbon club Benfica and at Paris Saint-Germain, coached Morocco until last July.  

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