100,000 spectators – it sounds like New Year’s Eve at the Brandenburg Gate, the “Rock am Ring” festival in the Nurburgring or Easter Mass in St Peter’s Square. The impressive figure was however recently recorded in Iran – at a football match. 100,000 people streamed into the Azadi National Stadium in Teheran to watch the former Iranian champions Persepolis win 1-0 against the Saudi Arabian representatives Al Nasr. The game was no more than a qualifying round tie for the Asian Champions League – and it wasn’t even one of any great importance. Nevertheless it was viewed by the biggest attendance in the history of the competition.
The AFC Champions League is booming – club football in the Near and Middle East has long been providing stern competition for the top clubs in Japan and South Korea. Interest in football is increasing all the time in the region. The competition has been staged every year since the middle of the 1980s but has only been named “Champions League” – after the European role model – since 2002. This year more fans watched the qualifying matches than ever before. The western part of Asia between the Arabian peninsula and Persia, where there is enormous enthusiasm for the game, is playing an major part in the growth. In Iran, women smuggle themselves illegally into the stadiums so that they can watch live. In his new book titled “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”, the journalist James M. Dorsey describes how women dress themselves up as men to get past the guardians of public morals standing in front of the gates.
Football also has an important role to play within society in other countries within the region. “Football stadiums have become one of the few areas where people can express their opinions freely,” wrote the The Economist when quoting a professor from authoritarian Saudi Arabia. There are always big attendances whenever the top clubs play at home – not only because the state doesn’t listen with the same intensity in the stands when football fans start swearing but also because the clubs are successful on the international stage. Al Hilal has stood five times in the final of the competition – more than any other club. Their last appearance came only a few months ago. Over 63,000 fans watched the second leg against Western Sydney Wanderers when they missed out on winning the title for a third title. Instead they had watch on when Sydney walked off with the trophy for the very first time.
However, clubs from the Near and Middle East are now a force to be reckoned with. For years now they have been battling with clubs from the eastern Asian strongholds for supremacy on the continent. Not only have teams from Saudi Arabia and Iran established themselves in the knock-out stages of the competition but also ones from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Clubs from the region have stood in the final 24 times and have lifted the trophy on 12 occasions. Teams from South Korea, Japan and China have won 17 titles in 28 finals. The Pohang Steelers from South Korea are up to now the only club to have won the cup three times. Leading the all-time table are however two Saudi Arabian clubs. The two-time champion FC Ittihad (42 victories) and Al Hilal (36) have amassed more points than all the other clubs.
The sufferers from the dominance of east and west are the teams from South-east Asia and Central Asia. They only play a minor role. Only Uzbekistan sends a strong team from the capital city, Tashkent, in an attempt to break into the phalanx. People in countries like Pakistan or India are far more interested in cricket or hockey. States in the Asean region like Thailand or Malaysia on the other hand have been unable to turn the big interest of the masses into improving their clubs’ fortunes. On every street corner one can see the locals wearing jerseys from top English or Spanish clubs but the times when Bangkok clubs were genuine contenders for the crown are well and truly over. Between 1993 and 2003, Thai teams won the Champions League on three occasions but since then they have enjoyed little success. All the country’s teams have to show for their efforts in recent times is a quarterfinal appearance for Buriram United two years ago.
In view of Asia’s size, to keep the arduous travel down to a minimum during the qualifying rounds, the clubs are divided up at the group stage into Eastern and Western divisions to determine who goes through to the last 16. Only then at the knock-out stage can a club from Riyadh face the challenge of overcoming, for instance, the seven-hour time difference involved in travelling to Melbourne. It also makes television marketing more difficult as the attractiveness of the matches for the TV channels sinks when kick-off times are in the middle of the night or at midday.
It however in no way diminishes the enthusiasm for football. The Asian Cup for the continent’s national teams in Australia in January electrified the fans in the participating countries. In Gaza, in West Jordan and east Jerusalem, the people celebrated the first ever participation of a Palestinian team at the continental championship. The team let in 11 goals and only scored one in three games. Nevertheless the region still provided evidence of their standing within Asian football as two teams – Iraq and United Arab Emirates – reached the semifinals.