The world’s largest continent wants a World Cup and to end European football’s colonialism. Matthew Hall reports from the latest FIFA congress on Asia’s big plans

“Thank you and enjoy your dessert,” said Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese music star as he ended his performance at FIFA’s 55th congress in Marrakech in September. N’Dour was the musical entertainment during the “gala dinner”, an opportunity to hit the trough with 600 people from every country on Earth (except Yemen, suspended, and Libya, who got lost on the way, apparently).

The evening amply demonstrated just how surreal FIFA can be. If eating a five-course fish dinner in the middle of the Moroccan desert is not strange enough, perhaps 200 catering staff being flown in from Germany for the night might tip things over the edge. FIFA President Sepp Blatter once claimed “the future is feminine” but out of about 600 guests, fewer than 50 were women and most of them the wives of VIPs.

The following morning, delegates from all FIFA’s national associations (except the aforementioned absentees) gathered for football’s equivalent of parliament. Speeches were made and votes taken on issues of the day.

FIFA has been in existence for over 100 years yet this was the first congress on African soil. “Don’t let it be another 100,” grumped Issa Hayatou, Blatter’s long-time rival, as the president made his opening address. Africa may have been celebrated but much side discussion focused on Asia. Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam, touted as a serious candidate to succeed Blatter, was keen to highlight what he considers the foreign imperialisation of Asian football.

The Premiership permeates some Asian countries deeply. Singapore’s national league plays fixtures midweek to avoid clashes with satellite TV coverage of English games. “Imagine in England that a Brazilian club, or even a French or Italian one, comes in and has a hold on English football,” Bin Hammam said. “In England, they put their own football first.” Bin Hammam and Blatter rounded on Asian pre-season tours by European clubs. The perception in Asia is that the clubs come for nothing but the money. And then run. “Your market should not accept it,” Blatter told a gathering of Asian journalists. “Those tours are a circus. The clubs go there to take your money. Some go east to Asia; some go west to the United States. Then, when the players get called for their national teams, the clubs say they are tired!”

Bin Hammam’s long-term plan is to build ten sustainable leagues across Asia that will – eventually – rival Europe, for both fans and players in their prime. “I want one day for players like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Henry, Zinedine Zidane, to see that there are opportunities for them to play in Asia and earn as good as they can in Europe,” he said. “In the future, economically, Asia can be number one. My dream is for Asia to compete in attracting the top stars of the world. This is where we can make Asia on the level of Europe or at least next to Europe. It can be achieved and not just in Japan, Korea and Australia [who have just left Oceania], for example. There is a lot of potential for the leagues to be developed in India and China, the big two potential markets, and the Middle East.”

Bin Hammam, a Qatari, is sharp. On the return flight from Marrakech to Dubai, he sat in economy class with his two daughters and AFC staff rather than up front with VIP delegates – even though seats were spare in business and first class. He’s also aware of the subtle economic shift taking place within global football, pointing out that half of the big-money official sponsors of the 2006 World Cup – Hyundai, Sony and Emirates – are from Asian countries. “Asia is very different now even from 2002,” he said. “Today, the world needs us. They need our sponsors. They need our TV audiences.”

England strongly fancies its chances to host the 2018 World Cup (Blatter has gone so far as to welcome talk of such a bid) but an AFC nation will provide the greatest rival. Sepp Blatter revealed the rotational system for World Cup hosting right will be dropped for 2018, allowing cross-continental rivalries to hit fever pitch. “The rotation system only goes until 2014,” Blatter said. “It was a political decision to ensure the World Cup went to Africa, otherwise Africa would never have it.”

“There will be good contenders for 2018,” he added. “China will definitely make a bid because if they organise the Olympics then they will want the World Cup, but there is the same to be said for Australia. If I am still alive in 2018, I will be retired, and I look forward to watching the games in a famous stadia, maybe in Beijing or maybe Sydney.” Before then, there will be at least 12 more FIFA congresses. The only guarantee: surrealism will survive.

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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