The AFC Secretary General speaks around various issues of Asian Football
In this Soccerex Spotlight, we interview at Dato Windsor John, General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to discuss the AFC Asian Cup, the world’s second oldest continental championship, and the present challenges and opportunities for the Asian football governing body. Interview for Discoveryfootball.com
Good morning and thank you very much for taking the time for our interview. How does the AFC support its member associations in regions as diverse as Qatar, Iran, India, Malaysia, China, Korea, Japan and Australia to promote football in Asia?
R/: The AFC is committed to assisting all its 46 Members and its Associate Member through a series of initiatives – many of which are laid out in our AFC Vision and Mission which was launched in January 2016. In that Vision and Mission statement, the AFC sets clear objectives of Member Association Development which delivers tailor made solutions and assistance. The AFC is also dedicated to delivering top level competitions which allow our teams to develop and be competitive on the world stage while we also offer the best support available for the Members to achieve success at that level.
We are determined that these should be built of a foundation of Good Governance and Integrity all of which is supported by optimising our commercial value, as you will have seen with our recent record deal with DDMC Fortis Group. Add to this support by using Football for Social Development – and the AFC Dream Asia Foundation has more than 30 projects running or planned in 22 Member Associations – and you can see the wide range of support for all our Members.
All these help the AFC towards its Vision of being the World’s leading Confederation, having success on the global stage and keeping football as the number one sport in Asia.
You have a 360° experience of football, having been involved in the game both as a player and as a coach before you moved into administration. What does your role as General Secretary entail and which knowledge and skills developed in your previous roles have proven useful for your current position?
R/: As you know, my foray into football started when I represented my state as a young player. From a player, I went on to coaching in 1992 and from thereon to various positions in the national and regional organisations until I joined FIFA in 2001 and the rest of course is public information.
Coming from a coaching and playing background I can safely say that the GS must be a team player. He needs to know and study his team mates to strategize the game especially the senior management team. It is imperative to understand the role of each staff to be able to put up your best team. No one gets left behind. Knowing and understanding how the staff think and react is crucial. A good coach never misses anything. Motivation plays a big part in ensuring productivity.
Being open to new ideas and thinking out of the box and allowing your team the flexibility and opportunity to be creative is also important. Discipline is essential – adhering to the governing statues are vital and above all, exercising integrity when carrying out your duty is utmost virtue. Setting KPIs and looking into introducing new initiatives each year to ensure accountability to our stakeholders in second to none.
The AFC Asian Cup was founded in 1956, making it the second oldest continental competition in the world after Copa America. In the 21st century, the competition has seen many changes including being moved to a year where it does not clash with the Summer Olympic Games since 2007. How important was this cycle change to attract bigger audiences and how relevant is to find a balance between tradition and innovation for the success of AFC’s flagship competition?
R/: The AFC Asian Cup is one of the world’s great sporting events and therefore deserves its own place in the international calendar. As one of our objectives, listed above, in the AFC Vision is to maintain football’s position as the number one sport in Asia, then it is vital to have the best possible chance to engage with the hundreds of millions of passionate football fans on the Continent.
Everybody, whether commercial partners, broadcasters or fans, wants to have a fixed date in a calendar so they can focus on the excitement of this flagship competition. There is no doubt that in the UAE and across Asia, the anticipation is building rapidly towards the January 5 kick off between the UAE and Bahrain. This competition with its record number of teams – up to 24 from 16 – with representatives from every one of our five AFC Regional Associations, a glittering new trophy, a record prize fund of almost US$15m, the highest number of match officials as well as a new tournament specific match-ball, will set a new benchmark for national team football in Asia.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup will be held in UAE between the 5th of January and the 1st of February, just a few weeks after the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup takes place in the same country. Are there any synergies between these two competitions in terms of organization management and facilities development?
R/: Of course, the fact that the FIFA Club World Cup is in the UAE allows the AFC to see two of the stadiums – Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain- in full match day operations. There are also other benefits such as match-day and operations readiness and our own AFC Asian Cup staff being able to witness the level of preparedness at these venues.
There are other bonuses as well. As you know, the AFC is embracing modern technology with the use of VAR (the Video Assistant Referee system) from the Quarter-final stage and much of the infrastructure required is already in place at these stadiums.
Some of Asia’s match officials – and of course players from Al Ain and Kashima Antlers – are enjoying experiencing the atmosphere in the UAE. So yes, I think the FIFA Club World Cup is helping in our readiness for Asia’s top national team competition.
I know that both competitions will also showcase the culturally diverse population that exists in the UAE as well – a factor which means that the participating teams in the AFC Asian Cup can expect vociferous and passionate ‘home’ support.
The 2019 AFC Asian Cup will be a competition of many firsts with a shift from 16 national teams to a competition with 24 and the first with VAR technology. How do these changes improve the profile of the competition?
R/: As I have already mentioned these are key factors in the success of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019. Our slogan for this competition is ‘Bringing Asia Together’ and we have done this through not only the final competition but also the new and inclusive Qualifying rounds, which presented opportunities and exposure to more of our national teams than ever before. We have seen teams such as Guam and Hong Kong feature strongly as well as the eye-catching performances of bigger nations – including the progress of Syria which captured headlines across the world.
From this Qualifying tournament, we also saw the top five nations reach the FIFA World Cup in Russia – a record for Asia and in the finals, of course, Japan came within minutes of eliminating Belgium, who ultimately finished third. So, in terms of raising the standard of football in Asia and closing the gap between our Inspiring, Developing and Aspiring nations, the Qualifying tournament was a resounding success. We now have debutants at this competition in the Philippines and Kyrgyz Republic (as well as Yemen appearing for the first time since qualification as South Yemen) which shows the growth of the sport on the Continent and also brings invaluable experience to more and more players.
As mentioned previously, there is at least one representative from each of our five AFC Regional Associations – with 11 out of 12 qualifying from the West Zone. The AFC is committed to being in the vanguard of football development as well – and that includes embracing technology as with VAR. Everyone saw the potential of VAR at the FIFA World Cup but it has required a lot of work and the support of FIFA and the International Football Associations Board to reach the stage where we can adopt it for the Asian Cup. Using the world’s leading suppliers, the AFC Asian Cup will have VAR from the Quarter final stage and we must remember that its main objective is to rectify the clear and obvious mistakes or serious missed incidents in certain key match-changing situation.
During the draw for the 2019 group stage on 4 May 2018 at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, a new AFC Asian Cup trophy made by the English company Thomas Lyte was unveiled. What does the new trophy represent?
R/: The AFC engaged world-renowned silversmiths to replace the trophy that has been in existence since 1956. It took more than 450 hours and 12 craftsmen were employed in developing the new trophy which was inspired by a classic Art Deco construct; an art form known for its modernism and craft.
The trophy’s curved sides resemble a lotus flower: a visual symbol which unites the diverse regions of Asia. The flowers concentric petals, or ‘waves’, represent the AFC five regional zones. A detachable plinth allows the trophy to be easily raised in celebration despite its impressive scale. And I think it is the impressive size of the trophy which will impress players and fans alike.
Historically, Japan are the strongest team in the continental competition with four victories, followed by Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran with three and Korea Republic with two. In 2015, the hosting nation, Australia, raised the trophy. These are precisely the five teams that played the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Does this make them favorites to win the AFC Asian Cup title or could a team that did not play in the World Cup emerge and challenge them?
R/: It is hard to say who the favourites for the competition are. Yes, the five teams named have all reached the FIFA World Cup in Russia – but all have seen a change in personnel and some in coaches since then.Clearly their record speaks for itself, but I am sure everyone in the competition will see themselves as potential winners and there will certainly be some surprises along the way. It has also been interesting to see how some teams, like Uzbekistan and Vietnam have developed through each of the AFC’s age group Championships.
Whatever happens and whoever wins, I am sure there will be some memorable matches along the way to the final and that ultimately the best team wins in the spirit of fair play.
How important are the FIFA Club World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup to develop the game in the Middle East and attract international tourism ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar?
R/: Asia has become a focus for World events in the last few years. The FIFA Club World Cup has been a permanent fixture on the Continent – being held in either the Middle East or Japan every year since 2005, except for two years when it was staged in Morocco. To maintain that level of organisation each year shows the talent that exists for tournament play in Asia and the fact that not only FIFA but also the International Olympic Committee look to Asia to host events on an ever more regular basis.
We, at the AFC, are proud to assist both organisations – with the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – as well as the FIFA Club World Cup, of course.
Sports tourism is an important factor in any event and we see now that more and more people travel to take part in global tournaments – such as the FIFA World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup. It was amazing to see so many people from South and Central America in Russia for example and I am sure that Qatar will be the same.
China have set themselves the target to become a football world superpower in just a few decades with a national football development plan that will see millions of registered players in record time. The nation could be hosting the FIFA Club World Cup at the end of 2019 and the FIFA World Cup as early as in 2034, or even in 2030 if the world’s organising body changes the two-cycle rule allowing members of AFC to bid. How important is the development of Chinese football for AFC both in terms of the improvement of the game and from a commercial point of view?
R/: Two-thirds of the world’s population live in Asia and it means that there is fantastic potential throughout the Continent. As I mentioned before, we have tailor made support for each of our Member Associations and of course, just like with India, Indonesia and other large populations, we recognise the opportunity to grow the game.
We have been helping the Chinese FA in areas that they have identified as important such as grassroots development and technical expertise as well as organisational structures. We have a task force that works closely with the CFA and identifies areas where AFC can be of assistance.
The programme is obviously bringing results as the CFA won both the AFC Grassroots Awards at the recent AFC Annual Awards in Muscat Oman and the AFC Dream Asia Award for Social Responsibility projects held in Kuala Lumpur in September. Both these were in the Inspiring Member Association category.
Clearly China is also a large and emerging commercial market – our own new Commercial Partners for 2021-2028 will be DDMC Fortis, who have their headquarters in Wuhan in China. We have also seen an influx of clubs and organisations into China to seek commercial support – and that includes FIFA.
In 2019, AFC will be a key event partner of Soccerex China, our second football business convention in this country, providing an opportunity for rights holders such as clubs, leagues and federations from all AFC regions to interact between themselves as well as with rights holders and private companies from other regions. What commercial areas do you consider to provide the biggest opportunities for those attending Soccerex China?
R/: I wish Soccerex the greatest of success at your business convention and I am sure that the networking and interaction between football people will give important insights into the development of football in China and also the future growth opportunities and potential.