Searching for global appeal
You could debate it for hours but, among others, Boca Juniors and New York Cosmos would have to be mentioned. These storied and exotic names became known to fans around the world, even if, in some cases, it was a fleeting fame. South America and North America have managed to produce clubs that broke out of the confines of their own continent. Surely now it is the turn of Asia.
It is only a matter of time before such a team spews forth from the world's biggest continent. It should already have happened but it is not an exact science. You need a solid foundation with a little bit of je ne sais quoi on top (or even with the tops - a unique shirt can only help) - success in the Asian Champions League, glamour, a genuine star or two and perhaps a coach who can make international headlines just by opening his mouth. You also need lots of fans to generate a special atmosphere to complete the brand.
There have been contenders in the past, among them Iranian giants Persepolis and Esteghlal, especially when they play each other in front of 100,000 at the Azadi Stadium. The problem for the pair is that their continental heyday was strictly in the offline and analogue age. The blues and reds of Tehran became respected in Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia but, the Iranian Diaspora apart, they did not make a global splash.
The first few years of the new millennium saw Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal make their mark. The Riyadh outfit took the 1992 and 2000 continental title and the fondly-remembered Cup Winners' Cup in 1997 and 2002 but did not have the same impact as Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad circa 2004-2006.
The city on the west coast of Saudi Arabia is much closer to Sudan than the Saudi capital and Al Ittihad's strong, flowing style was reminiscent of the best of African football especially in 2005 when talented imports such as Mohammed Kallon and Brazilian schemer Tcheco donned the distinctive black and yellow stripes, lining up alongside a whole host of national team stars.
The Tigers followed up their unexpected 2004 Asian Champions League win with a dominant performance to defend their crown the following year. At the 2005 Club World Cup, the team were unlucky to lose the semi-final 3-2 to eventual winners Sao Paulo, perhaps the closest any Asian team has come to making the final.
The story that followed is a familiar one. Turmoil in the boardroom and constant changing of coaches weakened the team and an indifferent approach to public relations meant that the success was not built upon and back into the pack they went.
Urawa Reds picked up the dropped gauntlet and, for a while, it really looked as if there would be fan clubs popping up all over the place. Located in the unremarkable satellite city of Saitama just outside Tokyo, the Reds had that special ingredient - the overwhelming identification of one place with football and the passion that brings. Tokyo is a world city and, like many such centres does not have, or perhaps need, a football status to match.
Kashima Antlers have also bottled that small town big club combo but while the Ibaraki club are by far the J-League's most successful, it was Urawa who captured the Asian imagination and Asian title in 2007 with attendances touching the 60,000 mark.
The AFC was delighted with the imagery of the trophy held aloft against an emotive backdrop of a flag-swirling red mass to set a standard of sights and sounds that have yet to be matched in the tournament. The continental campaign took its toll - the Reds let slip a ten point lead over Kashima with five games to go - it was seen as a blip. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Now the former champions fight relegation instead of Club World Cup semi-finals against AC Milan.
Next to make a name for themselves - literally as the club was, until 2008, known as Kuruvchi - were Bunyodkor. The Uzbekistan club were rich thanks to tycoon Miradil Djalalov, chief of conglomerate Zeromax. Former World Player of the Year Rivaldo signed and Zico was hired as coach. He didn't last long and in 2009 was replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari, who became the highest-paid coach in the world. Bunyodkor dominated their league, winning by 24 points in 2009 after dropping just four points all season.
By then, however, it was all about the Asian Champions League. In 2008, they reached the semis, in 2009 the quarters and 2010 the second round - an ever decreasing rate of return on a substantial investment. The 2009 elimination at the hands of Pohang Steelers after winning the first leg of the quarter-final 3-1 was the time it all went wrong. Well, that and the time the following year when Zeromax collapsed. The stars soon left.
Pohang are the most successful club in Asian history with three titles and while their intimate Steelyard can be a great place to watch football, it holds less than 20,000. Fellow K-League teams Suwon Bluewings, who were the last winners (twice in succession) of the Asian Club Championship before it became the Champions League, and FC Seoul are capable of generating the requisite atmosphere and crowds but not yet consistently enough.
And then there is China. The Middle Kingdom has not yet made much of an impact on Asian club football but that could be about to change. At the moment, two candidates stand out. Shanghai Shenhua have made international headlines by signing Nicolas Anelka and pursuing Didier Drogba. The fast-moving metropolis by the Huangpu is not really a football city, however, and only if, and it is a big if, the locals really turn out in numbers at the Hongkou Stadium will Shenhua have a real chance of backing up the headlines with something of a little more substance.
Guangzhou Evergrande are in a better position. Last season, they easily took the title and 50,000 regularly crowded into the stadium to watch such stars as Dario Conca. They are also targeting the Asian Champions League and stated their intention in style earlier this month in their first ever appearance in the competition. It was a dream start. Chinese teams regularly lose to their Korean rivals and a trip to K-League champions and 2011 Asian Champions League runners-up was expected to be beyond even the Reds. It wasn't as they won 5-1 to send shock waves throughout Asia.
The opening game of the new domestic season was less impressive at home to Shanghai Shenxin. Not only did the unfancied opposition give the hosts a number of problems, the 36,000 crowd was disappointing for a season opener. While rain and a national television broadcast were factors, the owners will be hoping that complacency is not setting in.
There are rumours that Marcello Lippi could soon be head coach as the owners look to take the team's profile to the next level. A couple more genuine global stars, a Champions League title and a good performance at the Club World Cup and Guangzhou have a chance to become the first team to really break out of Asia.
But until it actually happens, there is always the chance that it won't. Many teams in Asia would attest to that.