HONG KONG: An Asian leader of troubled FIFA looks a very real prospect in 2016 after a year in which the world’s most populous continent took a bigger role in the world’s most popular game.
Although Asia is yet to make its mark on the pitch, the region’s political and economic clout made itself felt at European clubs and the Zurich-based world body in 2015.
Asia’s football president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, is among the favourites to take over scandal-plagued FIFA at an election in February.
One of his rival candidates to succeed the suspended Sepp Blatter is Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, with whom Sheikh Salman has sparred in the recent past.
Even if FIFA doesn’t elect its first Asian president, the region is making waves in the sport as investors continue to snap up assets at European clubs.
China is leading the charge, spurred partly by the ambition of soccer-loving President Xi Jinping to turn the country into a football powerhouse.
China has set its sights on hosting and even winning a World Cup, and has started to put its plans in operation by mandating football in more and more schools.
Earlier this month, a state-backed investment firm took a $400 million stake in English Premier League giants Manchester City, just weeks after Xi visited the club.
The Chinese investors have said the deal gives them a chance to learn how to build a successful football brand, and in the process boost China’s domestic game.
The initiative comes after a Chinese model car-maker bought 80 percent of Spain’s Espanyol, and real estate giant Dalian Wanda snapped up 20 percent of Atletico Madrid in January.
Underlining China’s progress, Guangzhou Evergrande won their second Asian title in three years, beating the UAE’s Al Ahli 1-0 in a tight, two-legged AFC Champions League final.
Evergrande are the region’s big spenders, splashing out a reported $5-million-a-year salary for World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who arrived in June.
Speculation is also rising that China could become future hosts of the FIFA Club World Cup, now being played in Japan, after China’s Alibaba E-Auto became the event’s title sponsor.
But China’s 84th-ranked national team has stumbled close to the exit in 2018 World Cup qualifying, putting coach Alain Perrin under pressure.
Australia were crowned regional champions for the first time after hosting a slick and successful Asian Cup which smashed attendance and viewing records.
Australia, who joined the Asian confederation in 2006, edged South Korea 2-1 in extra time to become deserved winners in front of a 76,000 crowd in Sydney.
China enjoyed their best Asian Cup of recent years, reaching the knock-outs for the first time since 2004 before they lost 2-0 to Australia.
And UAE, hosts of the next Asian Cup in 2019, dazzled on their way to the semi-finals, led by playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, who was later named Asian player of the year .