Rewind seven months, when Arsenal visited, and the scene was very different.
Families wearing the London club’s red-and-white flocked past frenetic scalpers. From his rooftop portrait, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh gazed down on the 40,000 people who cheered as the Gunners shredded the national team.
Many Southeast Asian soccer fans care about European clubs more than the local teams. Across the region, leagues and clubs struggle to get even a fraction of the support, attention and revenue that European clubs enjoy. Match-fixing, corrupt governing bodies and chaotic management are partly to blame.
“It’s a mess,” said Nguyen Van Nam, among the mere 5,000 people who attended Vietnam’s 3-1 victory over Hong Kong. The 38-year-old decided to attend with his two soccer-mad children only after he couldn’t get tickets for Arsenal’s preseason exhibition in July.
“Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Southeast Asia is home to 620 million people, around the same as Latin America, but hasn’t sent a team to the World Cup since 1938, when Indonesia played as “Dutch East Indies” because it was a colony.
That many fans across the region only have eyes for European soccer is easy to understand when one consider Asian Cup results. Thailand and Indonesia lost all their six matches in the last edition of the 58-year-old competition, combining to score just nine goals. Singapore and Vietnam scrapped a single victory each.
Fan fascination with European stars such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi seems limitless. Southeast Asia’s resilient economies and increasingly wealthy fans are major attractions for European clubs. Arsenal was one of seven Premier League clubs that visited preseason. About one-third of Premier League shirt sponsors are Asian. Commercial deals are multiplying, from Manchester United-branded credit cards in Indonesia to a Chelsea-partnered whisky in Myanmar.
Match-fixing has made fans skeptical of Asian leagues. Police forces often are ill-equipped to investigate what may be a complicated crime involving transnational gangs. Indonesia and Vietnam have been investigated over allegations of throwing matches for money.
Corrupt and inept management of clubs and national teams, often by millionaire politicians or dodgy tycoons, as well as bad refereeing, crowd and player violence and constantly changing league structures also have discouraged fans.
Indonesia encompasses the worst and best of Southeast Asian soccer.
Jakarta’s Bung Karno stadium is full, the atmosphere electric, whenever the national team plays. League games regularly draw 20,000 fans.
But for most of the 2000s, the Indonesian soccer federation association was run by a person convicted of corruption, who kept the job despite being imprisoned twice. The end of his tenure in 2011 sparked a power struggle resulting in two dueling leagues and, for a time, two national squads.
Some European clubs invest in soccer academies in the region, but youth development as a whole is being neglected. Physical education classes or school sports teams barely exist in many places; study is given priority over sport. Childhood obesity is a growing problem.