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Asian Football Chief Sees Lucrative Opportunities in China
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Developing football in China has become a priority for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed bin Hammam, who sees massive commercial opportunities in the booming economic powerhouse.

Bin Hammam and a high-powered team from the AFC are in China this week for meetings with Sports Minister Liu Peng and to attend the China Football Development Conference in Qingdao.

The visit is part of the AFC's Vision China program, a master plan pioneered by Bin Hammam for developing and promoting football in the world's most populous country.

"China is the fastest growing economy in the world. Because of their strong economy and huge population, China will always be a candidate for any profitable commercial project," he told AFP in an interview.

"As we know, football today is also a business. And football in China is not only a priority for the AFC, but also for the world's football industry.

"Big leagues and big clubs from outside Asia are seeking commercial expansion in China."

Vision China, which aims to establish clubs and grassroots football leagues to lay the foundations for the future, got underway in Qingdao and Wuhan cities last year and will soon expand to Beijing, Shanghai and other places.

The plan is to build the game's popularity to rival the fanaticism of football supporters in Europe and South America.

"We have ensured that the strategic model of Vision China is scalable, sustainable and expandable," he said.

"By this I mean that given the right time frame and the right support, we can reach the very last city and last village in China."

Clubs like English champions Chelsea are getting involved, with an eye on snapping up bright young stars of the future that come through the ranks.

Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon has made recent trips to China and is accompanying Bin Hammam, a Qatari who splits his time between his home country and the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

"Chelsea's mission is to build success, not buy success," Kenyon said on a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, in a veiled dig at clubs like Real Madrid that have blatantly cashed in on tours to China in recent years.

"Our clear objective and vision is to develop Chelsea as an international club. This would not be possible without taking Asia very seriously."

But there is still a long way to go in China, where top clubs have been mired in allegations of corruption and match fixing stemming from illegal gambling. They are not profitable enterprises as in Europe.

Bin Hammam suggests that gambling be legalised so it can be controlled and the revenue ploughed back into grassroots football to help the game develop from the bottom up.

Clubs also need to adopt a more professional approach in terms of management, marketing and media coverage.

"Of course, from a commercial perspective, there needs to be an appropriate business environment, with relevant laws, to be able to embrace these commercial objectives fully," said bin Hammam.

"For example, professional clubs need to be regulated based on commercial laws and best practice."

Nevertheless, he believes that football in China, and Asia as a whole, has unlimited possibilities to develop and become as popular as it is in Europe, if it is managed properly.

"I think that football can be as popular in all of Asia, not only in China," he said.

"We need to develop first of all the commercial identity of the clubs and leagues, and harness the talented players who can boost the image of the Asian game. We are on our way."

The AFC has recently set up a committee to study the world's top leagues so Asia can replicate their success.

"Hopefully by 2009, 10 selected countries will be adopting a more professional commercial approach to their national leagues. This will provide the benchmark standard for the rest of Asia to follow," he said.

(AFP via China Daily April 24, 2006)

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