The comeback from Covid-19 for Asian football has been, as elsewhere in the world, a case of two steps forward, one step back.
In recent weeks, the Asian Football Confederation has been piecing together plans to resume its main club competitions, the Champions League and the AFC Cup. This week, the confederation announced the postponement of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Fifa World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup that were due to take place this year.
AFC general secretary Dato’ Windsor John spoke to SportBusiness about how the organisation has met the challenge of the pandemic and its hopes for a brighter future, with a new commercial rights contract getting underway and a Women’s World Cup coming to the region in 2023.
It’s been an incredibly challenging year for the sports industry due to Covid-19. Can you summarise the impact that has been felt by the AFC and Asian football?
Firstly, it impacted our competitions, but a swift decision was made to ensure the safety and health of our players and staff were protected. In fact, the AFC was one of the first organisations to postpone its matches.
But at the same time we needed to ensure ‘business continuity’ to our member associations. The AFC has been able to fulfil its responsibilities while working from home for more than three months.
What have been the most effective actions that the AFC has taken in response to Covid-19?
The AFC most importantly, as mentioned, maintained business continuity so that we could support our MAs (member associations) effectively during this difficult time. New ways of communicating were introduced and we were determined that the support that was available to the MAs was able to reach them.
The unity and solidarity of Asian football allowed that to happen and all our MAs were supportive, as were our loyal commercial and broadcast partners – themselves feeling the effects of this virus.
The AFC also embarked on a social media campaign of ‘Engage, Energise and Entertain’, which involved the launch of two social media campaigns – #BreakTheChain and #StayActive – together with our Asian stars to raise awareness around Covid-19. Our football competitions and developing our MAs have always been the main areas of focus, but in the background we have used it as a platform to promote social responsibility programmes.
We have been working with our partners such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to launch initiatives to help those most affected by this pandemic in Asia.
We also invited the (Korean) K League, who as you know were the first to resume their league, to present their case study to our MAs. This was a highly engaging session for our MAs to gain an insight as to how they can restart their league and to exchange ideas among peers.
What is your assessment of the duration of the disruption you face due to Covid-19? And do you foresee any long-term changes in Asian football as a result of the pandemic?
Like so many industries, football faced a challenging time and many leagues across Asia and around the world were suspended.
But the encouraging sign is that several MAs have resumed football or are in the final stages of restarting their domestic competitions.
The AFC has been in constant communication with our participating clubs and MAs from both the west and the east zones to find a solution on how to resume the AFC club competitions. And it is through solidarity and unity between the AFC and its MAs that we are able to restart our AFC club competitions again in September.
Looking at the longer-term, I believe that many organisations will be forced to reflect on their risk assessment plans and strategies, and establish better ways to ensure that they are in the best possible position to manage and deliver on their vision with little or no disruptions.
Confederations like Fifa and the IOC have delved into their financial reserves to support their members. Has there been demand from AFC members for financial assistance, and have you been able to provide it?
The financial assistance programme* remains unaffected for MAs during the pandemic to ensure all staff members and other contractual payments were carried out without delay. The infrastructure projects under the AFC president’s initiative** are also ongoing where possible to ensure that the development of football in Asia continues.
*The AFC’s financial assistance programme is an annual $500,000 (€423,000) grant to MAs for football development and management activities.
**The AFC President’s Infrastructure Initiative provides financial support to MAs to improve football infrastructure and facilities.
You are about to embark on a new era in terms of your commercial rights with Football Marketing Asia. What are your hopes and expectations for this era?
The AFC is excited to enter a new commercial cycle with FMA and the partnership is beginning to show great interest and results with rights deals secured in Chinese Taipei, Indonesia, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We will continue to work with FMA to unlock the potential of the sport on the continent in this new and exciting era.
One huge bit of good news for Asia-Pacific football this year was the award of the Women’s World Cup to Australia and New Zealand. What effect will this have on the women’s game in Asia-Pacific, and what will the AFC be doing to capitalise on it?
Women’s football is growing rapidly, and the focus of the world will be on Asia in the coming years. Asia can look forward to hosting the Fifa World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and of course the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.
The Fifa Women’s World Cup 2023 was a historic bid but most importantly it was the strongest bid. The Fifa evaluation report scored it 4.1 out of 5 and Colombia 2.8. We are confident that the Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2023 will be the greatest yet and leave a lasting legacy for the sport in the host countries as well as in Asia.