Saturday, June 15, 2013

The wild, wild East

People ask me why I prefer living and working overseas. "Why not stay here," they ask,"find a nice part of the country and cover football?" My reasons are plentiful -- I've lived in the United States for more than 25 years, there are vast swathes of the Earth I haven't seen, newspaper jobs are increasingly scarce here, American football doesn't interest me that much, etc. One of the reasons I didn't know until I left the country was that there are some types of stories you just don't get in the developed world.

For example, Malaysian soccer authorities are offering fans a bounty to catch their fellow supporters misbehaving at the upcoming FA Cup final.
The FAM said supporters would be given 1,000 Malaysian Ringgit ($320) for their 'policework' during the showpiece final between Kelantan and Johor Darul Takzim at the National Stadium on June 29. 
"We have decided to take a different, and positive, approach to preventing crowd trouble during the Cup final," FAM competitions committee chairman Hamidin Mohd Amin was quoted as saying by Malaysian media on Friday. 
Johor's semi-final second leg against Pahang was abandoned due to crowd trouble, while Kelantan were fined 40,000 Ringgit last year after their fans caused a long delay to a Cup match when they threw bottles on to the field.
Rat out your friends and neighbors for fun and profit! Another outstanding idea by the FAM, which always does what's in the best interest of Malaysian soccer and in no way has a problem with accepting criticism. Nope, none whatsoever.

There is some overlap in these stories, of course. Among the most notable is the increasing prevalence of European clubs flocking to Asia and North America in search of new revenue streams their adoring fans.

Take a look at Arsenal's upcoming tour of Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. The Gunners are embarking on one of those money-spinning preseason tours that seem de rigueur as Big Clubs scramble for every overseas penny they can find after milking their home markets dry. I've railed against these cash grabs before, but as long as there's money to be made, you can rest assured such tours will continue as Big Clubs pretend to be genuinely interested in "football development" in these overseas markets.

There appears to be a spanner in the works, though. Someone isn't playing along with the narrative and -- Shock! Horror! -- could threaten the bottom line. Arsenal's visit to Vietnam is in question after the owners of My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi decided they wanted a taste of the action, too.
Organisers of a soccer friendly between English club Arsenal and Vietnam are facing a battle to ensure the match goes ahead after the owners of the stadium venue hiked their fees for the game.
Arsenal would be the first Premier League team to visit Vietnam and while the country's football federation played down concerns the game could be canceled, they said the price being quoted to use the My Dinh national stadium was too high. 
The Vietnam soccer federation has appealed to the government and local media to pressure the owners to lower fees after they demanded 1.5 billion dong ($71,300) - more than seven times the normal price - to stage the much-anticipated July 17 match.
Also, cast aside any preconceived notions of the inverted pyramid and check out the final graf:
Arsenal join Premier League rivals Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in touring Asia next month, playing matches in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan, where they have lucrative fan bases.
"Lucrative fan bases." Apparently the domestic fans who fill the stadium week after week, pay increasingly exorbitant ticket prices (despite no guarantee of a return on further investment) and generate the atmosphere that helps the league sell itself to overseas markets are insufficiently lucrative.

The closer you look, the less anyone's motives look particularly pure. According to the Thanh Nien Daily, tickets for the match will cost up to 1.5 million dong ($720) each in a country whose per capita GDP last year was $1,555. Arsenal, being the guest of honor, of course will be paid in full -- clubs and national teams of such stature won't even get out of bed for less than $1 million guaranteed -- but everyone else involved makes it sound like they're doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.
“It’s sad that the My Dinh Stadium [management] took advantage of this occasion to rip off the match organizers… It’s not fair play to push the rent up to VND1.5 billion,” Le Hung Dung, vice chairman of the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) and chairman of Eximbank – one of the two sponsors for Arsenal's trip to Vietnam, said Thursday.

“We can’t accept such inflated prices,” Dung said, adding that the key purpose for the friendly match is to make Vietnamese football fans happy, rather than earning profits.

According to Dung, the “reasonable” rent should be between VND300-500 million, compared to VND200 million that VFF had paid five years ago to rent the stadium for a match with an Olympic team from Brazil.
And yet....
But Can Van Nghia, director of My Dinh national sports complex which includes the stadium, disagreed with any reduction.

Nghia told VTC News Friday that the rent of VND1.5 billion is “not steep,” since this is a big event that would garner a lot of attention and the organizers can earn dozens of billions of dong from ticket sales. ....

Nghia said his organization would have to pay more than VND1 billion to spruce up the stadium for the “big” event.
But wait!
But Dung of VFF said that the organizers will lose at least VND5 billion on invitation tickets and earn nothing from advertisements since the advertisements at the stadium are for the sponsors, adding that the organizers are "willing" to give the right to hold the match to the stadium management if they think the event will make huge profits.

Nguyen Trong Hy, VFF's chairman, said the organizers did not consider the match an opportunity to make profits. The total cost for the match was originally estimated at VND39.8 billion and the organizers were expecting loss of more than VND11 billion, he said.
Once again, after you wade through the back-and-forth, there is a juicy little nugget near the bottom of the article. Like its peers, Arsenal goes around the world establishing academies in search of exciting new talent/gullible parents (delete as necessary), and it's established the Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal academy in Vietnam in a joint venture with the aforementioned company, a local powerhouse with interests in mining, energy, rubber and real estate. It also happens to run a soccer club that operates the Arsenal academy and is the main distributor of Arsenal merchandise in the region. (Note for American soccer fans: Hoang Anh Gia Lai FC is also a former employer of Lee Nguyen, who now plays for the New England Revolution.)

Much like regional peers such as the Bakrie, Genting, Salim and Sime Darby groups, Hoang Anh Gia Lai didn't rise to its current level by refusing to get its hands dirty. Perhaps not surprisingly for a firm with interests in rubber and real estate, it stands accused of engaging in land grabs and deforestation in Cambodia.
This report shows how vast amounts of land have been acquired for rubber plantations in Cambodia and Laos by two of Vietnam’s biggest largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG). The rubber barons are financed by international investors including Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private lending arm of the World Bank.
It lays bare the culture of secrecy and impunity that has allowed these two rubber giants to gain rights to more than 200,000 hectares of concession land through secretive deals with the Lao and Cambodian governments. They have close links with the region’s corrupt political elites and operate with complete impunity, devastating local livelihoods and the environment in the process. Rubber Barons is the first exposé of the role of international financiers in these land grabs. Deutsche Bank has multi-million dollar holdings in both companies, while the IFC invests in HAGL.
When success in soccer is determined by who has the biggest checkbook and clubs need large, consistent infusions of cash just to keep up with the Joneses, asking about the source of that cash is apparently bad for business.

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