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Tokyo and Singapore-based reporter Cesare Polenghi examines how the newest Pan-Southeast Asian league can learn from its original predecessor

 Cesare Polenghi
 Feature
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The coming of the ASEAN Super League, expected for 2015, is generating enthusiasm among football fans in the region, but it also brings up several questions. Most of which are difficult to answer given the fact that there has been very little said regarding the details of the project.

In order to shed some light on how a “super league” works, it might be relevant to examine some aspects of how the first modern professional league in Asia was created and how it operates.

We are of course talking about the J.League, which by now boasts more than 20 seasons of professional football, has produced dozens of players good enough to succeed in the top European leagues and feeds a very competitive national team.

First of all, there are a few differences that need to be pointed out:

To begin with the J.League is a domestic competition, while the ASEAN Super League would be an international competition - with all the implications that come with it.

Moreover, unlike in Southeast Asia, the J.League’s domestic competition did not come from other football leagues. The rival was, and still is, baseball.

Finally, because of baseball’s popularity in metropolitan areas, most of the early J.League clubs (Kashima Antlers, Urawa Red Diamonds, Gamba Osaka, etc.) were based in small towns or suburban areas. Yet, the ASEAN Super League will likely try to appeal to the huge population of the megalopolis in the region.

The basic principles upon which the success of the J.League was built can be summarised in two concepts: localisation and self-sustainability.

In other words, clubs must count on their community (players, fans, institutions and sponsors) to support themselves and thrive on and off the pitch.

To begin with, there is the issue of local identity: “The J.League wants its members to serve as fully integrated members of their local community,” states a J.League booklet circulated to the foreign press in 2011.

The idea is for football clubs to become part of the social life of citizens; a local or regional symbol: The banner under which people will unite in the name of sport and love for their hometown.

This is something we already see happening with some ASEAN clubs, such as Chonburi in Thailand or Kelantan in Malaysia.

Again though, it is worth considering how this will surely be more challenging when juxtaposed to teams based in big cities that clearly lack the identity of smaller urban centres.

Moreover, the international dimension of the ASEAN Super League will also switch attention from a local to a national level.

A club aspiring to become a J.League provisional member must have an average of 3000 spectators per game. Such a number would be no problem for most ASEAN clubs. There are however requirements to incorporate official supporter organisations.

This might suggest that the ASEAN Super league clubs would want to come to terms with their supporters’ groups and should consider integrating them within their structure.

To guarantee the highest possible standard of professionalism, the J.League accepts only existing football entities with a proven record of stability, and already playing in a minor league.

Such clubs will have to feature at least two youth teams, U-18 and U-15, plus an U-12 or soccer courses for elementary school children.

Managerial professionalism equally is a must. Ultimately, a J1 club will require incorporation into a public-interest corporation, or Pte Ltd. company, featuring at least one full time executive, three full-time staff members, no capital deficit, annual revenue of at least ¥150,000,000 and advertising revenue of at least ¥100,000,000 after admission.

All the above “suggestions” from the Japanese experience seem relevant, and none of them too hard to achieve for top Southeast Asian clubs.

The real questions though seem more related to integration within the existing football scene. Considering the moderate success of the AFC Cup, especially vis-a-vis the local leagues, the ASEAN Super League will need to come up with something really exciting to capture the enthusiasm of supporters and investors.

Again, it might be worthwhile having a look at what happened in the early years of the J.League. The key for success was the “production” of the league, even more than its content.

From a pantheon of top names on the field (Zico, Pierre Littbarski and Gary Lineker, to mention a few), to paraphernalia of NFL/NBA-like official goods in the stands, the J.League hit the bullseye, capturing the imagination of their “customers” straight away.

The Japanese example might not be a perfect blueprint for how the ASEAN Super League needs to develop, but it is clear that much can be learned by examining how the J.League flourished and considering the interest of the Japanese in Southeast Asian football, a positive cooperation between the two organisations will begin soon.

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