Sunday, May 13, 2012
Asian ownership on the rise
Globalisation is not a 21st century phenomenon, as Blackburn knows. In the early 1860s, thousands of textile workers in the town suffered enormously as the American Civil War cut off the supply of raw cotton that the industry depended on. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi visited after urging his countrymen to boycott Lancashire cotton. He was given a warm welcome and later a place in a mural depicting Blackburn's history at the town's railway station. Jack Walker, the man who led Blackburn Rovers to the 1995 English Premier League title, is on there too. But current owners Venky's have little chance of appearing alongside either compatriot or predecessor after presiding over a ruinous relegation in a season when Asian owners of European football clubs have made international headlines.
The takeover of the famous old club by a poultry company from Pune in 2010 was just another example of globalisation, football-style. Just a few years before, the big boys of Europe, especially England, had started to look to Asia to build brands, fans and bank balances through pre-season tours, signing players and finding sponsors. At airports throughout the region, the sight of Premier League club officials with passports in their hands and pound signs in their eyes was not uncommon.
Now there is traffic going the other way. As well as giving practical English lessons in how to use football to target the Asian market, the Premier League, quietly encouraged by the Asian Football Confederation, also presented itself as the passionate and glamorous home of international club football - especially in the East. With Asia increasingly elbowing Europe aside to move towards the centre of the world stage economically and politically, it is not a surprise that the rich and successful on the giant continent have looked to get involved in a field in which Europe still clearly leads the way. Asian ownership of Western clubs is only going to become more common.
In England alone there are, or have been, Indians at Blackburn, Thais at Leicester, tycoons from Hong Kong at Birmingham, Malaysians at Cardiff and QPR, and Abu Dhabi billionaires at Manchester City. As always for fans, it is a lottery. For every world-class star that Sheikh Mansour has bought for City - a club formerly owned by a former Thai prime minister accused of human rights abuses - there have been proposals such as the one suggested to Cardiff, the Bluebirds, that they change their colours to red to appeal more to the Asian market.
Blackburn fans could list more grievances. Being dragged to Pune, the base of Venky's, during the middle of the season to take on a local team pales in comparison to some of the goings-on at Ewood Park, but it raised an interesting point, as expressed by India Football Federation vice-president Subrata Dutta to Reuters: "Venky's have not invested in Indian football. Apart from one exhibition match between Pune FC and the club, Blackburn Rovers have in no way contributed to Indian football. So we are not bothered about their relegation. I don't think they have served our purpose or even their purpose. Being a Pune-based company, I would have been happy if they would have invested in Pune FC rather than Blackburn Rovers."
So would fans at Blackburn - who would also contest the assertion that Venky's have invested anything at all - but still, with the wildly varying standards in Asian football, there are ample opportunities for businesses and the wealthy to get involved at home and make a difference. Most do not.
It is happening in China. Some of the richest men in the country are buying clubs and players to make the Chinese Super League the most-talked about in Asia, though this has more to do with politics than football. Some do both. Shiekh Mansour has poured hundreds of millions into Manchester City but still has invested in local UAE club Al Jazira to make it the best in the league both on and off the pitch.
But, often, local lights can't compete with those on the biggest stages. Last year I talked to Erick Thohir, the Indonesian co-owner of NBA team Philadelphia 76ers, a billionaire who brings the likes of David Beckham to Jakarta to play exhibition matches. Thohir is also interested in buying a football club but it is unlikely to be a local one. Perhaps he thinks, understandably, that investing in the madness of the current football situation in his homeland is not the wisest thing to do, but it is precisely because of the problems in the country that intelligent investment is needed.
Maybe Thohir will end up in England. As well as the Premier League's standing in Asia, the country's rather relaxed attitude to buyers when compared to many of its neighbours also helps, but while England has been seen as the most attractive destination, it is not alone. Clubs such as Paris St Germain, Malaga and Racing Santander are now under Asian ownership - though it is hard to say with Racing. Ahnan Ali Syed, a Bahrain-based Indian businessman, tried to buy Blackburn just before Venky's. It didn't happen after a string of unpaid debts in the UK and elsewhere were uncovered. He then turned his attention to Spain to take over Santander. Both clubs have been relegated; Syed has disappeared, with Interpol on his trail.
The fact that they escaped Syed is only small comfort for Rovers fans facing an uncertain future with distant, distrusted, disconnected and seemingly disinterested owners. There are rumours that Venky's are looking to sell the club and are looking for buyers. Not in Europe but Asia. This is globalisation, 21st century style.