Southeast Asian football is never boring, but this past week has been especially interesting. For a day or two, many fans in Thailand and Malaysia were daydreaming of their local leagues being graced by the respective talents of Alessandro Del Piero and Juan Roman Riquelme.
This was not mere gossip. According to Italian media, representatives from Thailand’s Muangthong United, one of the region’s biggest clubs, went to Turin to talk to Del Piero’s brother and offer ten million Euros for two years of football.
A few days later and Malaysia was getting in on the act. The president of Johor FA, which plays in the country’s Premier League, tweeted his determination to sign Riquelme just days after the Argentine announced his decision to leave Boca Juniors.
Riquelme’s wage demands, in the end, scared off the ambitious Malaysians — $300,000 a week for one player certainly sounds like a lot, no matter what kind of publicity he generates off the pitch. As for Del Piero, according to reports, he was never that interested in relocating to Thailand.
Such attempts failed this time but perhaps not the next and hint at a worrying mindset. The chase for big names is glamorous and exciting but for developing leagues, it doesn’t usually work.
Muangthong should know this after signing Robbie Fowler. The effect of the Englishman’s presence off the pitch was real but fleeting. On it, it never really happened at all. Del Piero, coming straight from Juventus rather than Perth Glory, is admittedly at a different level but the end result would ultimately be similar. The stages move from euphoria to excitement to enthusiasm and then just mere interest. A few months later and everything, except that country’s balance of payments deficit, is back to normal.
As good a player as Del Piero is, or perhaps was, one 37-year-old is not going to make United into a world-beating team. He is not going to change anything fundamental off the pitch either. But ten million euros targeted and invested in the right areas? That could make a huge difference.
Thai football has come on leaps and bounds in recent years but the development is patchy. The leading clubs are becoming more professional by the day — Muangthong could teach many around Asia about marketing, merchandising and all around operation — but there are a number of others in the top tier and lower down with much further to go.
Buying big-name players is not always a bad idea if it is part of a multi-pronged long-term strategy. When it is the be-all and end-all, however, plan A and plan B, it is a waste of money.
If Johor FA have ringgit coming out of their ears, then investing it in youth is a better way forward than handing it over to 34 year-old South Americans.
It is not just confined to clubs. At the same time as the Riquelme and Del Piero stories, a deal was actually done that generated little interest in comparison. Erick Thohir became co-owner of DC United. The Indonesian billionaire is already involved with basketball team Philadelphia 76ers and told me last year that he wanted a MLS club as well. He finally got one and sounded pretty excited.
“After you have this strong team, then you advertise the team to other countries through new media, tours, building a soccer academy, coaching clinics, then everything else,” said the man behind the high-profile and expensive visit of Beckham and LA Galaxy to Jakarta a few months ago.
“If you also do well on that side, then many fans will fly to DC and become suporters also. That’s what you see with Manchester United. Many Japanese supporters come and many Chinese supporters come [to watch Manchester United].”
That is as optimistic as it is possible to get but it would be refreshing to hear someone with power and money to talk about Indonesian football in such terms. Thohir and others are free to do with their money as they wish (and there are many who would say that with the chaos in the domestic scene, only the foolish would risk their cash and the mega-rich aren’t usually foolish). But if they don’t and the national association can’t, then other options are thin on the ground.
If the likes of Thohir invest in grass-roots and youth development in Indonesia and managed it well then, given the passion for the game in the country and the region as whole, rewards would be reaped — in a few years time that is.
That is the problem. You can have your name and picture in newspapers around the world standing alongside Riquelme or Del Piero or Beckham in a couple of days and have local, national and international media at your beck and call. For the non-footballers among us, it is a heady experience.
In contrast, the return on investing in youth takes a long time to bear fruit and is not going to earn you much in the way of thanks even when it does happen.
It may not be sexy, it may not be glamorous and it may not be quick. But it is the only way.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.