Sunday, October 09, 2016

China's Guangzhou Evergrande are being hailed as Asia’s first football ‘superclub’

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, the Southern China Tigers seem set to take a place among global football’s elite, opening the door to the country’s ambitious soccer goals. Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester, suggests that, with a dynamic, well-managed marketing strategy, the club’s continuing rise does raise the prospect of it being able to engage fans across the world in ways Asian football hasn’t seen before.

Southern China Tigers is the leading club in a nation with massive football ambition. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

FOLLOWING THE latest round of football matches in the Chinese Super League (CSL), Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao are now just one win away from becoming champions. With the season finishing at the end of October, the Guangdong club looks set to take the winner’s trophy for the seventh consecutive season.

The victory will go some way towards compensating for Guangzhou’s early exit from this season’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (AFCCL) competition. Last season, they won the Final and qualified for FIFA’s World Club Championship (WCC), but this year they failed to get beyond the group phase.

Even so, with another CSL title this year being added to last year’s WCC semi-final appearance against FC Barcelona, some observers have hailed Guangzhou Evergrande as being Asia’s first super club, and even the world’s richest football club. Irrespective of whether either is or will become true, China could be on the verge of having its very own equivalent of Real Madrid.

Although the club has been around in various incarnations since the 1950s, it is only since 2010 that Guangzhou has risen to the top of Chinese football. This followed the club’s US$16.4 million purchase by the Evergrande Real Estate Group, which subsequently began heavily investing in player and managerial talent. In 2014, China’s biggest e-commerce firm Alibaba then bought a 50 per cent stake in the club at a cost of around US$192 million.

With heavyweight investment, ongoing success, a squad comprising of players such as Jackson Martinez and a World Cup-winning manager in charge (Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari), Guangzhou have started to appear in lists produced by some of the world’s most influential business publications.
Forbes recently identified the football club as being China’s most valuable, worth US$282 million, while the Wall Street Journal has considered whether its value could be as high as US$3 billion. Elsewhere, in England, the Independent newspaper similarly labels it as being the world’s richest club, while The Guardian newspaper has portrayed Guangzhou as being Asian football’s first ever super club.

One suspects that Guangzhou Evergrande is already central to China’s football ambitions, not least because of the club’s association with corporate poster boy Jack Ma (owner of Alibaba). But it is the club’s appearances in the AFCCL and, even more importantly, the WCC that potentially contribute the most to China’s football ambitions.

Club co-owner Alibaba last year became a sponsor of the WCC, through its E-Auto division. Guangzhou’s appearances in the tournament make this a logical fit, although rumours suggest there is more to the move than one might imagine.

FIFA’s WCC is held annually, normally in Japan, and is contested by the world’s top teams (FC Barcelona won last season’s tournament). With a team regularly competing in the event and a Chinese sponsor in place, speculation has arisen that China will seek to wrestle control of the WCC from Japan and stage the tournament itself.

This would not only appeal to those in China who hold anti-Japanese views but also provide a quicker route to global football prominence than the World Cup. Although China’s football development plan is conservative in specifying the date by which it wants to stage the World Cup and to win it, in both cases the country would rather it be sooner rather than later.

The problem for China, however, is that FIFA has a policy of World Cup rotation, which is designed to ensure that continents across the world are each given an equal opportunity to organise the tournament. With Qatar – part of FIFA’s Asia confederation – scheduled to host it in 2022, this means in theory at least that China won’t get the chance to host the tournament until the 2040s.

FIFA may yet step back from this policy, but for the time-being securing the WCC may be China’s (and Guangzhou Evergrande’s) chance to propel itself into football’s spotlight much faster than it could by chasing the World Cup.

As such, Guangzhou’s value to China may be as much political as it is financial, although with such prominence comes the potential for commercial success. That the club is no Manchester United or Bayern Munich right now seems obvious, but the WCC potentially provides a basis upon which to create a level of fan engagement and brand loyalty never before witnessed in Asia.

Research in sports marketing shows that engagement and loyalty are functions of perceived quality, awareness, and associations. Winning the CSL seven times and being successful in the WCC immediately marks Guangzhou out as being different to and better than its frequently derided Chinese rivals. In turn, playing in games broadcast worldwide not only helps to accentuate quality, but also raises global awareness of Guangzhou.

Fan associations pose more of a challenge for Guangzhou’s managers, however, both at home and overseas. Domestically, Chinese fans often have deep associations with the teams they support and don’t readily switch to being fans of other clubs. Yet if Guangzhou ultimately came to represent the face of modern China and its football, then there could be opportunities to build a large Chinese fan base.

Building such a fan base would nevertheless prove more difficult overseas. There is general cynicism around the world, about both China and its football. Moreover, most foreign football fans would probably struggle to name either the club’s manager or its players. It is likely too, that many of them may not even know where Guangzhou is.

We therefore shouldn’t expect Guangzhou to become the next Arsenal or Atletico Madrid anytime soon. However, with a dynamic, well-managed marketing strategy, the club’s continuing rise does raise the prospect of it being able to engage fans across the world in ways Asian football hasn’t seen before.

These are exciting times then for Guangzhou Evergrande. It is the leading club in a nation with massive football ambition, and now starting to appear in international competition alongside some of football’s global icons. Indeed, as hard as it may be for some Europeans to accept, over the next decade it is entirely feasible that the Southern China Tigers take a place among the sport’s elite.

Simon Chadwick is ‘Class of 92’ Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, Manchester in the UK, where he is also a member of the Centre for Sports Business. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the original article

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Video Assistant Refereeing could be a major own goal for football – here's why

After a landmark decision in March by the International Football Association Board to experiment with Video Assistant Referee technology over a two-year period, FIFA president Gianni Infantino hailed VAR as a "new page in history" and hoped it will be used at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Within the Asian Football Confederation, only Australia has been selected as one of the six nations involved in the initial testing. Mathieu Winand, Lecturer in Sport Management at the University of Stirling has tracked developments since and compares the enthusiasm of the game's administrators for VAR with the wariness of football fans. "Technology," he warns, "could remove the enjoyment and passion from debating key decisions, particularly when the stakes are high."

Will football fans take to Video Assistant Referee technology playing a role in vital decisions on the field? Photo by [CC BY 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

AJAX'S 5-0 CUP VICTORY against fellow Dutch premier division side Willem II on 21 September saw a first in football: the official world debut for a video assistant referee in a competitive game. Sitting in a van with six TV screens inside the stadium, the assistant quickly proved his effectiveness. He recommended by headset to the on-pitch referee that his initial decision to give Willem II midfielder Anouar Kali a yellow card for kicking an Ajax player’s ankle was too lenient, and Kali was dismissed a few seconds later.

While video refereeing is already routinely used to review decisions in sports like rugby and hockey, football has been late to the party. Ahead of the Ajax-Willem II game it was trialled first in a friendly between Italy and France earlier in September, successfully resolving claims in respect of a yellow card and a penalty.

It was then tested again after the Ajax game in Feyenoord’s 4-1 cup victory over FC Oss on 22 September, also in the Netherlands. More tests are set to follow in different competition formats in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Portugal and United States and there have also been discussions about introducing it in England and Scotland.

In the system being trialled, the video referee communicates with the referee on the pitch within a few seconds of any incident. As well as advising on penalty and card decisions, they might help clear up cases of mistaken identity or infringements in the lead-up to a goal such as offside or foul play. If the on-pitch referee wishes, they can also review the video footage themselves before making a final decision. 

Goal-line technology

Video refereeing is a more intrusive extension of goal-line technology, in which video enables football referees to instantly make an accurate call about whether the ball crossed the goal line. Though again arriving much later than in other sports, goal-line technology recently became a feature of top European leagues like the English Premier, the German Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.

It is used at the Champions League and Europe League finals, and was also used at the Brazil World Cup in 2014 and Euro 2016. In Germany’s 2-0 group win over Ukraine at Euro 2016, for example, the technology vindicated the referee’s decision to reject goal celebrations by Ukrainian players after a shot was cleared right off the line by German defender Jérôme Boateng.

International football federation FIFA for a long time resisted introducing goal-line technology, arguing it would threaten the universality and simplicity of football and the pace of the game, as well as removing some of the controversy and debate between fans.

But the federation came under pressure to reconsider following numerous high-profile incidents such as Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England against Germany at the 2010 World Cup. The technology was finally given the green light in 2012. FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, has since also spoken positively about it, notwithstanding that the accuracy of the technology is debatable.

The fans’ view

So should football now introduce video refereeing across the board? Not necessarily. Managers and coaches tend to be supportive, but fans share many of FIFA’s concerns. The worry is that this is not being taken into account.

Various surveys have shown a large majority of fans in favour of video technology, yet one major international survey from 2012 was much more equivocal. At least one of the more positive surveys also showed that despite fans’ enthusiasm, they fear it could assume too much importance. “Penalty decisions were the only types of decisions where the majority of fans felt using video refereeing was justified”, it said.

Another earlier survey had 90% of fans fearing that players or managers would use video refereeing to gain a competitive advantage, for example by breaking the flow of the game. Elsewhere, fans have fretted that the technology could remove the enjoyment and passion from debating key decisions, particularly when the stakes are high. Both debating and the atmosphere at games have been demonstrated through research to be important for spectators’ experience and satisfaction in football.

At the University of Stirling we found a similar mixture of support and concerns when we surveyed 270 Scottish fans about goal-line technology in 2014. The majority thought the technology detracted from the atmosphere created by contentious goals and lessened the debate around crucial decisions.

They weren’t in favour of in-stadium viewing of goal-line technology, which is currently considered prohibitively expensive by the Scottish Football Association, or of any other video technology being introduced. The more a fan identified with a team, the more strongly they tended to oppose the introduction of future technologies.

All these surveys remind us that the debate around video technology is far from over in football. 

Seriously damaging the atmosphere at games is arguably not a price worth paying to try and improve the game. It could potentially jeopardise one of the world’s most lucrative commercial products. For that reason, the governing bodies need to proceed cautiously. It is important that football decisions are as accurate as possible, but not at any cost.

Mathieu Winand is Lecturer in Sport Management, University of Stirling. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

See also: Football Law Board continues goal-line tests (4 Oct 2005); Goal-line technology for 2007 Club World Cup (28 Nov 2006); IFAB to review rule changes, goal-line technology (12 Feb 2007)