It may play second fiddle to cricket as the national pastime, but football has a big following in India. In July 1997 a record 131,000 people crammed into the Salt Lake stadium in Calcutta to watch the KBL Federation Cup semi-final between bitter rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. In the same decade attendances of up to 100,000 were recorded in Kerala and Bengal. Goa, Bangalore and Delhi also regularly enjoyed matchday attendances of between 25,000 and 35,000.
The Chinese Super League (CSL) season gets underway on March 15. Most of the country's big clubs receive substantial funding from various wealthy business tycoons or state-owned enterprises, and several teams have recruited expensive foreign reinforcements. Shanghai Shenhua started things off last December in spectacular fashion by snapping up Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka for £190,000 a week. Since then, Beijing Guoan have spent around £1.9 million to secure strikers Andrija Kaludjerovic and Reinaldo, while Shandong Luneng have paid a reported £830,000 for their own Brazilian forward, Gilberto Macena.
"A team that has scored just one goal in four matches has eight points. I am simply too amused to try and find an explanation to this," said Uzbekistan's Olympic coach Vadim Abramov of United Arab Emirates' resurgence in the qualifying group. Amusement was not the general reaction after the worst of the wildly varying standards of professionalism in Asian football were revealed once again.
Since being appointed manager of Iraq last August, Zico has repeatedly made it clear that his principal aim is to guide the troubled nation's football team to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. Despite being well positioned to lead the 2007 Asian champions to the tournament in his homeland, the 58-year-old has discovered that winning over the Iraqi media is a more complicated issue.
Comedian Jasper Carrott used to joke that he grew up thinking his favourite team as a child were actually called "Birmingham City-nil". Kids these days could be forgiven for thinking that the adjective "war-torn" was permanently attached to Afghanistan. Yet, for a few short days in December, the nation's football team was making different kinds of headlines.
The annual Asian Player of the Year award ceremony held every November should be one of the highlights of the continental football calendar. While even close followers of football in the East would struggle to name the past five recipients, all know the controversial criteria that determine who can, or rather who cannot, win.
The celebrations didn't rival those from December last year, when Qatar was named host of World Cup 2022, but Al Sadd's victory in the 2011 Asian Champions League has been painted as a triumph against the odds – inside the tiny peninsula at least. Elsewhere on the continent, however, the surprise was not a welcome one. All agree that the final itself was a thrilling affair. A crowd of 42,000 packed into the Jeonju World Cup stadium in South Korea to see local team Jeonbuk Motors host the west Asians.
Mohammed Bin Hammam's global profile has certainly improved in recent months with fans and media outside Asia now familiar with the shiny pate and the goatee. Unfortunately for the Qatari this isn't a consequence of becoming the president of FIFA. He is not even president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) any more after being banned from all football activities.
His crime? According to FIFA's ethics committee, it is buying the votes of Caribbean Football Union members during the presidential election against Sepp Blatter, an act that earned him a temporary suspension on May 30, just two days before the vote was due to take place. According to supporters, it was having the audacity to challenge the slippery Swiss supremo at all. For the second time running, Blatter ran alone, while on July 23, the ethics committee turned Bin Hammam's yellow card into a permanent red.
After nine years in charge of Asian football, the 62-year-old is not about to give up his seat at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur without a fight. Claiming that the committee is biased, he is to appeal the decision. That will take time but he has that on his side as the AFC agreed not to elect a new president until May 30, 2012, a year from his original suspension, at the earliest.
Labelled secretive and dictatorial in his running of the confederation, he did at least manage the football equivalent of running the trains on time and more besides. There is money pouring into the game from both outside and inside the continent, the Asian Champions League was introduced in 2003 and has prospered, his Vision Asia programme has helped some of the continent's lesser lights, and standards have risen all over the continent, albeit inconsistently.
In Asia, progress is always going to be inconsistent. The sheer size of the continent and its population is both blessing and curse. It brings importance and growing influence but its cultural, religious and linguistic diversity makes it hard to govern. The divisions are strongest between the western and eastern sides of the continent. Bin Hammam did well to keep a lid on much and was fairly even-handed. Despite past battles, there would be no real problem in Seoul, Beijing or Tokyo if the Qatari was to continue in office. The issue is that nobody expects that to happen. The talk around Asia is that Bin Hammam is finished and now it is all about his successor.
East Asia's big boys believe that it is time to bring the presidency back. South Korea, Japan and, to a lesser extent, China feel that the smaller nations, especially from the west, are much more concerned with political power for its own sake rather than genuine football development for Asia. Korea and Japan perform at World Cups, appear at FIFA Club World Cups and develop and send players to the big leagues but at the same time have seen their influence in the AFC diminish. Suspicions about the west are shared but what to do about it is a different question. The eastern bloc is rarely a bloc at all, unsurprising with the history between China, Japan and South Korea.
China's Zhang Jilong is the acting president and a contender. Japan wants an East Asian president but not one who is Chinese. The Japanese grew tired of the AFC's machinations but as improvements have come on the pitch, the country wants more influence off it. The popular head of the Japan FA, Junji Ogura, is too old to run. Korea's Chung Mong-joon is the highest-profile figure in Asian football politics but the former FIFA vice-president has, as yet, given no indication that he has lost his traditional indifference to Asia.
The western side is much more likely to back a single candidate, though it remains to be seen who that is. Bahrain FA president Sheikh Salman ran Bin Hammam close in a May 2009 election for his seat on FIFA's executive committee and is a possibility. UAE's Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf al-Serkal is another. There is room for a compromise candidate, probably from south-east Asia, and Malaysia's Prince Abdullah Ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah could fit the bill. And Bin Hammam? As if we needed reminding, 2011 has shown that those in power hate to give it up but his campaign to clear his name is likely to be not much more than an interesting sideshow to the main event.
From WSC 296 October 2011
It was the definition of optimism. The Reuters reporter stood with microphone in hand after North Korea's 3-0 defeat to Ivory Coast at the 2010 World Cup hoping to catch a word with the vanquished. Every grim-faced player was asked "Do you speak English?" as he filed past. To say the silence was stony would be kind.
Only the last one out was happy to speak. Jung Tae-se made front pages around the world for crying during the national anthem prior to kick-off against Brazil and was equally forthcoming about the reasons why his team lost and what needed to be done in the future before the visibly annoyed team manager came back to drag him on to the bus.
Next time around Jung may still be the lone striker but not the sole speaker. North Korea believe that the best way to ensure that there actually is a next time is to engage with the international football community on a more consistent basis. For a country that is rarely mentioned in the western media without "secretive" somewhere in the headline it is quite a shift, but the World Cup reinforced a growing feeling that isolationism in football is more stupid than splendid if you want success.
Just weeks after the tournament ended, the government split the North Korean FA in two. The larger section deals with international affairs and was put under the control, not of the party but of the military, headed by Kim Jong-il's heir Kim Jong-un, thought to be more of a fan of basketball than football.
When qualification for the 2014 World Cup starts in September, the majority of the North Korea starting 11 could be foreign-based, travelling home for matches from such destinations as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Russia and Denmark (and even Mongolia, now the home of Kim Myung-won, the striker who the team tried to register as a goalkeeper last summer). There could even be movement north across the 38th parallel but only when conservative South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, blamed by Pyongyang for most of the problems on the peninsula, steps down in 2013.
By that time striker Ri Myong-jun and midfielder Jong Il-ju will be approaching the end of their contracts with second-tier Danish club FC Vestsjaellend. The players were just 20 when they arrived on trial last year and did enough to be handed lengthier deals. The club chairman had had some contact with North Korea in the past but, even so, the deal was not a simple process, despite the relative enthusiasm for the idea of exporting talent. "It is not an easy country to sign players from," said coach Micheal Schjonberg. "It's like in the old East Germany. They are employed by the military, which belongs to the government. Importing exotic animals would be easier with all the bureaucracy but there is talent there."
Ove Pedersen replaced Schjonberg at the beginning of July and is happy with his Asian contingent. "I don't know about North Korea's plan to get more international experience but here the two players are learning to play football in a different style than what they are accustomed to," he said. "They will develop as players and become more skilful. They pass well and although their shooting could be better they are young and will make progress. Ri is the better player of the two. He is a player for the bench at the moment but that may change soon. Jong has more to learn but that will happen as the good thing about them is that they both work hard and want to learn. It is difficult to communicate with them but they are learning English and doing well in training."
Having two North Koreans at the same club means that they can support each other off the pitch in a very foreign environment, but they are also trying to fit in with their team-mates. "With foreign players, you can see when the players accept them or don't accept them," said Pedersen. "I can see that our players accept them. They are part of the group."
It is a trend that is going to continue with more North Koreans heading overseas and it is only a matter of time before one arrives in England. When that happens, it doesn't mean that every North Korean footballer will be desperate to talk to the press but at least journalists will be able to spot the ones that don't – they'll be wearing oversized headphones and talking into mobile phones.
From WSC 295 September 2011
John Duerden covers the growth of the Asian Champions League, currently held by Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma thanks to their manager known as "the Korean Mourinho"
If José Mourinho was still manager of Inter he would be in with a chance of meeting his eastern equivalent at December's FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. The Italian club are likely to play the newly crowned champions of Asia, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, who are led by Shin Tae-Yong, aka "the Korean Mourinho".