Soccerex Asian Forum: Notes from day one

The Soccerex Asian Forum returned to the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre by the Dead Sea in Jordan on 3rd May for the first day of its second edition.

Soccerex Asian Forum: Notes from day one

The Soccerex Asian Forum returned to the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre by the Dead Sea in Jordan on 3rd May for the first day of its second edition.

Prince Ali's homecoming

It was an early start for several visitors to the Asian Forum - including Soccerex founder Duncan Revie, former Arsenal vice chairman David Dein and Mumbai City FC manager Peter Reid - as they rose just after dawn to watch Floyd Mayweather beat Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas. Like Pacquiao, the first speaker on day one of the Asian Forum has been pursuing an elusive foe, although he still has a few weeks to wait before the judges deliver their verdict.

HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the Jordan FA president who will step back from international soccer politics if he fails to unseat Fifa president Sepp Blatter at the global governing body's congress in a few weeks' time, said that he had "some wonderful experiences" in his time on the Fifa executive committee but he also admitted to "a bit of a culture shock". Debate and original ideas, he revealed, we're not received as openly as they might be.

"Of course there are many positive things that I'm happy to have been a part of but there's a lot more that could be done," he said.

The 39-year-old has been using the platform of the presidential race - he is the only candidate attending the Asian Forum, though all four were invited - to discuss some of the shortcomings of soccer administration. For one thing, he believes that greater responsibility for development needs to be passed on to the national associations, with fewer levers pulled from Zurich. More of Fifa's work, he added, could be done more quickly if it were devolved to regional centres, closer to people with better knowledge of local challenges.

Prince Ali believes the national bodies are ready for this kind of self-sustainability but contrasts that with the attitude that Fifa has allowed to develop: "the idea that we should be comfortable with where we are" and that after decades of commercial expansion, "people should be grateful to the organisation". He also criticised Fifa's dealings with imported experts in its efforts at greater transparency, particularly the failure to fully publish the findings of investigator Michael Garcia or to properly debate the governance recommendations of Dr Mark Pieth. The reputational damage this had caused, he argued, had caused a lack of competition among sponsors at a time when "commercially, they should be fighting to support Fifa".

He has been frustrated, too, in his efforts to communicate his message through the campaign by a lack of opportunities to share a platform with Blatter. Away from the Uefa congress, the continental confederations have only allowed the Fifa president to address their members, denying the same opportunity to his challengers.

"The reasoning was that the incumbent was speaking only as the president of Fifa and not campaigning when we could all pretty much see that there was some campaigning going on," said Prince Ali, who confessed to finding this "a bit shocking".

The discussion of Prince Ali's candidacy drew applause from some members of the audience but he was happier on home ground. At one point, he asked of his interviewer Keir Radenedge - stepping in for the unwell but happily recovering Soccerex frontman David Davies - "Anyway, can we get back to football now?"

Much of the football Prince Ali wanted to talk about concerned the efforts of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP). He is justifiably proud of the AFDP's achievements, not only in its work with Syrian refugees in Jordan but across the region, in countries like Bhutan - whose national team won their first Fifa World Cup qualifier earlier this year. The AFDP has spread its operations as far as the home of the Asian champions, Australia, and wants to take it further.

He did add, though: "Perhaps we'll have to come up with a more catchy name." 

Jordan welcomes the world

The prince spoke at the end of the interview of looking forward to getting his tie off and joining the rest of the delegates, but he waited on stage a little longer to join the second guest: Samar Nassar, the chief executive of the local organising committee for the Fifa U17 Women's World Cup 2016 in Jordan.

Nassar, a former Olympic swimmer who was chef de mission for Jordan's London 2012 team, was on stage to launch the competition branding, which is also being carried at a major installation on the exhibition floor. She is leading a project that bears the hallmarks of Prince Ali's inclusive, developmental approach. Next year's tournament is the first global Fifa event in Jordan and presents a major opportunity to spread the women's game across the Middle East, stimulating participation and greater openness.

The organisers are promising a "Jordanian twist and flair" to the messaging around a tournament that will be "compact and hassle-free, hopefully" but Nassar admitted that the presence of "so many restrictions" on the marketing side would require some creative thinking. That said, she added, "Fifa know what they're doing when it comes to event management." This heightens the value and importance of knowledge transfer between LOCs.

The event experience

There was plenty of LOC experience on offer shortly before lunch, when Radnedge was joined by Mark Falvo, the Asian Cup 2015 chief operating officer now back with Football Federation Australia as head of international affairs, Qatar 2022 competition venues senior manager Evangelos Pestos, and Danny Jordaan, the South African Football Association president who previously led the country's Fifa World Cup hosting body. Their panel was rounded out by Malcolm Tarbitt, the executive director for safety and security at the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS).

According to Falvo, "there is a great consistency to the way an LOC will approach a tournament". There is the planning phase, where the vision is established, and then the operational planning phase, where the logistics of putting that vision into practice are outlined.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy - the body organising the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup - is perhaps moving from the first of those phases to the second. But as Pestos is now discovering, the pressure of putting together such a complex operation begins to tell early on. "Even if you think you have a lot of time," he said, "it's not true. You don't have time."

One of the most complex and mutating elements of any event project, particularly after it had moved from the bid phase, is security. Tarbitt noted that "there is no standard, generic template, globally" for security, and that many LOCs quickly realise that they have underestimated the cost of those elements in an attempt to produce a smaller projected budget. It does not help that the threat profile changes ahead of an event. Drones and cyber attacks, Tarbitt believes, will be the major preoccupation of the organisers of events in the next decade.

Other challenges, which vary from tournament to tournament, will also present themselves: in Australia, the Asian Cup team realised that "walk-up crowds" buying tickets on the day had been larger than expected, necessitating a revision in staff numbers; in Qatar, the organisers must anticipate the complications in crowd movements that may arise from fans going to more than one game in a single day. In every case, as Jordaan explained, expectations also play a role, and no LOC begins with "a blank piece of paper". For South Africa in 2010, negative perceptions before the tournament meant the need to be "the best just to be seen to be equal", but delivery against those expectations also increased the benefits of hosting the World Cup.

"You must turn the purchase of a ticket into a lifetime experience," Jordaan said, adding that when fans shared their experiences of 2010 the reputation of South Africa, and of the tournament, grew significantly.

Joining the club

Representatives of four European clubs with four different relationships with Asia took the stage in the afternoon.

An Asian consortium is expected to buy a minority stake in AC Milan, whose commercial director Japp Kalma was in Jordan, in the coming days. Malaga CF, represented by vice president Moayad Shatat, are Qatari-owned. La Liga rivals Atlético Madrid have a major sponsorship agreement in place with the tourist board of Azerbaijan - which, as managing director for global business development, Javier Martinez, explained, allows the Spanish club to promote initiatives like the Baku 2015 European Games across the world - but they are also a stakeholder in Indian Super League champions Atlético de Kolkata. And, as board member Ebru Köksal explained, Turkey's Galatasaray play in a country and a city which spans Europe and Asia, and are a sponsorship target for Asian companies like Huawei seeking to breach the Turkish market.

Their conversation was understandably wide-ranging but a handful of central themes emerged. Chief among these was the change in the relationship between European clubs and fans in other territories, sparked in part by the need for clubs to have a longer-term, less parasitic presence in those countries. As Kalma put it, clubs must sell less and engage more, creating something more like the bond they have with their local fans. The difficulty, he noted, was that "the model that you have in your own market is something that has grown naturally over a hundred years".

Social media, grassroots coaching initiatives and Atlético's presence in India are a few examples of how this is being tackled but the question arose, inevitably, about regular season matches being exported in the same manner as they are by the NFL and NBA. Perhaps surprisingly, given the farrago over the Premier League's '39th game' concept a few years ago, the idea was warmly received.

"I can see it happening," said Kalma, who noted that Italy's Super Coppa had already been played overseas. Shatat, for his part, said that "nothing can beat the live experience".

Fixing fixing

The director of the marketing department at the Chinese Football Association, Li Jiquan, was in Jordan to outline a new approach to the game in Asia's biggest economy. There are a whole host of challenges in China that few other countries face - nationwide youth competitions, for example, are played in short bursts to cut down on travel costs. But the most pervasive issue in the country's soccer community is corruption.

China, according to ICSS executive director and former Fifa anti-corruption chief Chris Eaton, is the major international entry point to the game for match-fixers. The betting rings seeking to manipulate the results of games are the most sophisticated anywhere, moving beyond targeting players and referees to corruption monitors and officials.

Eaton was speaking on the final panel of the day, a fascinating and sometimes chilling look at the threat of match-fixing to soccer around the world. According to monitoring company Sportradar - whose communications director, Alex Inglot, was also present - as much as one per cent of the results of all organised professional sport may be manipulated to illicit ends. The problem is far starker than it appears, Eaton warns, because "there are a lot of denialists out there", and proper solutions are being missed in the search for "a silver bullet".

Inglot explained that sport becomes vulnerable to fixing when players are not paid enough, or regularly enough, and there is a liquid betting market. Those bodies who could identify those factors in their sport should take proactive action. But both Eaton and Inglot agreed that sport could not solve the problem on its own. Eaton believes that the target should be the source: organised crime. He became visibly angry when discussing the recent case in Australia of the Southern Stars, a team in the Victorian state league. The players and coach involved had been prosecuted, along with initiator Segaran 'Gerry' Subramaniam. But backer Wilson Raj Perumal, who has admitted to being behind fixes around the world, could not be charged under Australian law.

Eaton and the ICSS have taken their cause to major supranational bodies like the World Economic Forum and the UN. "We've taken the discussion out of sport," he explained, "because sport is primarily a targeted victim here." The impact of fixing, he suggested, goes beyond the affected games to the wider industry: in Asia, development in countries afflicted by fixing which should be "powerhouses", like Indonesia and India, is listing.

The answer that was proposed was not an easy one, with global cooperation beyond sport essential. Betting regulation was also deemed a must, with the "grey" and "black" markets producing so much money and so many weak spots. Proper legislation, Inglot added, is also a must. As he explained, "police like to pursue cases they can win" and in most countries, match fixing is not a crime in itself. The result is cases twisted to fit other fraud and conspiracy offences: cases which invariably fail. 

On day two: building and branding leagues, taking a fresh look at tournament formats, and an audience with Maradona.