Saturday, January 14, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: January 13, 9:03 AM UK
PSG look East to raise profile
It may sound like a hard-boiled cold war thriller but 'Paris Syndrome' is apparently a sad fact for a small percentage of Japanese women. Such a perfect image do these femmes have of the French capital, that when they arrive they become depressed about the reality.
Japanese football fans are not as easily excited and are not yet thrilled about the idea of one of their heroes, Keisuke Honda, joining Paris Saint-Germain. The blond bombshell could shine in the City of Light however and his arrival would mark a significant step towards French football establishing itself as a major player in Asia.
Ligue 1 and its clubs have yet to make much of an impact in the world's biggest continent. As well as the widely-popular English Premier League, there are those who follow Serie A and the Italian giants, while an increasing number profess to be fans of Barcelona and Real Madrid and there are even some Bundesliga buffs. But French flirtations with Asia, or vice versa, haven't always been successful.
For a while in the middle of the previous decade, it looked a little different. Good Asian players such as Daisuke Matsui (now with Dijon), Koji Nakata ('the other Nakata') and 2002 star Ahn Jung-Hwan were all active. At the end of 2006, Japanese mobile content provider Index Corp bought French club Grenoble 38. It was supposed to be something of a staging post for Japanese players heading to Europe, but the club now has other concerns after dropping out of the top flight in 2010 and finishing bottom of Ligue 2 the following year.
In 2008, UAE international striker Faisal Khalil - once reportedly convicted of using black magic to curse a rival for a starting spot - joined Chateauroux, or so he thought. So angry was his club Al Ahli that the royal family intervened to make sure that Khalil was soon back in Dubai (it helped that the crown prince was also the club's president).
Not only has France never been seen as big enough to be one of the major leagues, it hasn't been seen as quite small enough to be seen as a stepping stone to the elite. Honda and Park Ji-Sung both established themselves in the Netherlands, but the last major Asian star in Ligue 1 was Park Chu-Young.
The South Korean impressed for AS Monaco in his three seasons and earned a big move to Arsenal in August, hotfooting it from negotiations with Lille to catch the Eurostar to London after a phone call from Arsene Wenger. With no Premier League action after four and a half months, though, Park probably wishes he had stayed in France.
Indeed, that is what is happening more and more in the league following the events of last summer when Qatar Sports Investments took control of Paris Saint-Germain. As more money flows into French football, talent that would once have left is starting to stay put, or at least is becoming harder to get. Not only that, but a number of big names are being linked with the club on a dizzying and daily basis. Stars such as Javier Pastore are already there and, with Carlo Ancelotti as manager, the club and its ambitions are the talk of European football.
Qatar has long-standing ties with France and three weeks after QSI took PSG, more money was heading in the same north-westerly direction as Qatar based broadcaster Al Jazeera bought the rights to broadcast Ligue 1 alongside Canal +. These are heady times for Paris and French football.
The plan in that corner of the Middle East is to make PSG and French football a major force in the world, and much of that world is Asia both in real terms and increasingly in football terms too. The recent effort to get David Beckham was the direct route towards that goal. Signing the Englishman would instantly take the profile of club and league up a notch. Rightly or wrongly, a last minute Beckham free-kick winner makes international headlines in a way that Pastore simply does not.
It is not about selling shirts in Asia - it never has been (even in South Korea with its reported 1.2 million Manchester United credit card holders, red shirts on Seoul's streets are rare) - it is about getting your club in the general consciousness, in the news, on the television and in the minds of fans and sponsors.
Honda would help. After Park Ji-Sung, Honda is probably the best-known Asian star and unlike the South Korean who turns 31 next month and wants to stay at his club, the 25 year-old Japanese star still has his best years ahead of him and hopes to leave CSKA Moscow for a bigger club and league.
The question at the moment is whether Paris and France meet those requirements. Reaction back home to the transfer rumours didn't cause past sufferers of 'Paris Syndrome' to suffer a relapse but it was lukewarm. All know that the club is going places but has some way still to travel. Many want Honda, not far from his peak, to go to one of the established giants of the European game.
France has the money, now it just needs time. There needs to be at least one rival to PSG in the glamour, money and potential success stakes. Ideally, Marseille would pick up that gauntlet but unless a club does, a Paris Saint Germain show with a supporting cast would not have lasting appeal, especially as kick-off times currently mean any prospective Asian fan would have to rise in the small hours of the morning. Behind the scenes there is already talk of introducing some English Premier League style early kick-off times to ensure comfortable Saturday and Sunday evening viewing experiences for the potential millions out east.
That would be another significant, but relatively simple, step. Emulating recent English success in Europe is more difficult but necessary. And then there is English itself - an underappreciated factor behind the global appeal of the league just across the channel. The majority of the Asian football media that feeds hundreds of millions of fans gets its European sports news from English-language outlets, in which Premier League news makes up a disproportionately large percentage.
Paris has a reputation for not suffering English-only speakers gladly and, while that is more realistic than the Disney-like depiction that can cause a few women to become depressed, it is still an image largely wide of the mark. In football however, money can quickly change preconceptions and the stock of Parisian and French football is certainly rising. Just how far it can go remains to be seen.