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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May 2004, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Asian football looks to future
Japan celebrate with the Asia 2000 trophy
Japan were winners of Asia 2000 with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary - and is now looking to the future after successfully overcoming a number of problems.

World football's governing body Fifa believes the future of the game will be in Asia, with its massive potential in terms of population and economic growth.

This statement has tied in with the launch of the high-profile Vision Asia project - designed to boost football throughout the region - and the AFC is optimistic of success, and fast.

"We are home to some 3.7 billion people - 60% of the world's population - and 56% of this population are under 20, so it's very youthful," Mr Valappen told BBC World Service's World Football programme.

"Football has now become a passion - the next century belongs to Asia in terms of economic and political development."

Asia 2004

Mr Valappen said that in particular, China was developing its football very quickly, having qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2002.

"India is not far behind - it is setting new standards in many areas of development," he added.

Sun Jihai and Li Tie
The presence of two Chinese players gave Manchester City's clash with Everton some of the highest TV figures ever
"A lot of the Gulf countries are now coming back into football development... and the standard is set by Korea and Japan.

"So I very much believe that in the next 10 years there will be a lot more influence and impact of Asian football in the international arena."

The continent is in particular looking ahead to the forthcoming Asia 2004 tournament, to be held in China in July.

China is seen as being key to developing football in the region - both because it has a third of Asia's population and because of its enormous economic potential.

Mr Valappen said there was great optimism that China's vast potential could be tapped during the next few years.

"China is very much inspired by the success of the World Cup in Japan in 2002," he explained.

"The Beijing Olympics now is occupying a very big focus on what they're going to achieve in 2008.

"The timing is right. Also, China is now in the process of building a number of new facilities, especially football stadiums, football academies, and a large number of training pitches."

Obstacles

China is set to launch its Super League this year, while the Asia 2004 tournament will be played in a number of new stadiums modelled after the ones used in Japan and Korea.

Seoul stadium, South Korea
China has based its new stadiums on those used in the 2002 World Cup
"We think all the stadiums will be full. The Chinese know that it is important they support this event," Mr Valappen added.

"So we could come out having had the best Asian Cup."

Mr Valappen added that he was particularly happy that the AFC had overcome number of obstacles since it was established, in particular in relation to the continent's size and great diversity.

He pointed out that Asia is the world's largest continent in land size, which presented a number of problems - especially as some national football associations may not be able to afford plane fares for their players.

"We are travelling across the continent, from Beirut, Lebanon, right to Japan in the East, and North Korea in the north and Indonesia in the south," he said.

"It takes such a lot of time.

"So the biggest problem is managing the continent in terms of travel, time zones, geographical conditions, winter, summer, rainy periods and so on."

As a result, organising pan-Asian competitions had for a long time proved very difficult.

Vision Asia

At one time, when it appeared the organisation might not able to handle such a task, they toyed with the idea of dividing the continent into three organisations.

But progress made by countries since then meant this did not have to happen.

Mohammad bin Hamman
Bin Hamman is the man behind the Vision Asia project
"The unifying passion of football itself has now brought Asia into a very solid organisation, where unity and solidarity are the key words," Mr Valappen said.

"In a way, credit has to go to football. Credit also has to go to the AFC leadership, to have brought about this vast, diverse continent into one single confederation."

The AFC is now looking ahead to the next 50 years, and in particular the Vision Asia project, being overseen by the AFC's chairman Mohammad bin Hamman.

It is an ambitious plan to launch football as a primary sport amongst all Asian nations.

"For the first time we are looking at the game not from one, two or three perspectives, but in the entire totality," Mr Valappen stated.

"Since everybody's in the driving seat, we feel that we will move much faster in the coming years than in the past."


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