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Jan 27, 2013

Asia's dwindling interest in Serie A

Was there ever a clash between two players so handsome? When Ahn Jung-Hwan (and not Byron Moreno as some seem to think) soared above Paolo Maldini to send South Korea to the last eight of the 2002 World Cup at the expense of Italy, it was a moment of beauty for Asian football fans and perhaps that golden goal was the end of a golden era for Italian football in the east.

English fans of a certain age talk fondly of the early nineties when it was easier to watch Italian football on television than the Premier League. It was an experience shared around Asia. For many, Serie A was the first taste of regular European football, and what football it was. In countries such as Indonesia, China and Saudi Arabia, calico was a welcome visitor into homes before the Premier League started to make serious moves into Asia and Lionel Messi was barely out of nappies. The glory days, when the best in the world played for AC Milan, Juventus, Inter, Roma and quite a few other clubs, were glorious indeed.

There is still a hardcore following who insist that they watch a superior brand of football and shake their heads in pity for the shallow Premier League fanboys and the Barca-obsessed legions, but Serie A no longer occupies the same exalted place among general football followers.

This is partly because of the lack of Asian exports to the country in recent years. Kazuyoshi Miura was the eastern pioneer on the peninsula, joining Genoa on loan in 1994. A broken nose on his debut, after a collision with the great Franco Baresi no less, was quite an introduction and an anecdote he still tells with pride. His time with the historic club was not exactly a success as Genoa fans saw his famous hipswinging goal celebration only once, but the fact that it came against rivals Sampdoria earned him a small but special place in their hearts. In a career that is still not finished (at 45!), one of Kazu's many achievements is the exposure he helped give to Serie A back in Asia and especially Japan.

Then came Hidetoshi Nakata. Good enough to be a good Serie A player when Serie A was seriously good and cool enough to be a cool player in a league that was the epitome of football coolness, the midfielder arrived at Perugia after impressing at the 1998 World Cup in Japan's debut appearance. He looked like he was born to play in Italy. Ten goals in his first season helped the club avoid relegation and caught the attention of Roma. In 2000, he headed to the capital for almost $30 million - still a record for any Asian star and the season after, he was celebrating winning the Scudetto. Japan celebrated with him. After spells with Parma, Bologna and Fiorentina, he retired from playing football and joined Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers.

Perugia weren't done yet and continued to look for Asian talent. More than one arrived at the club but none would have the impact of Ahn Jung-Hwan. The South Korean spent much of his time on the bench, scoring a few goals but never quite making the breakthrough. His golden header at the 2002 World Cup changed all that. He was subsequently and famously sacked by Perugia president Luciano Gaucci for eliminating the Azzurri. It was never really an actual dismissal but added to contractual complications; it meant that the Lord of the Ring was searching for a new quest.

The striker, now retired and shorn of curls, also said that he had complications with a certain Marco Matterazzi. "He barged into the locker room one day and barked at me in front of everyone, saying that I reeked of garlic," Ahn told a suitably shocked trio of television interviewers. "I didn't understand what he was saying but the translator, who was also a Korean, blushed and, at first, was too embarrassed to translate the remarks," he added before his wife said that after the incident he stopped eating Korean food, little of which does not contain garlic, and ate only spaghetti and pasta.

No other Korean has since set foot in Italy's top tier, with Japanese players leading the way. Shunsuke Nakamura impressed at Reggina before heading to Celtic in 2005 and striker Takayuki Morimoto flattered to deceive with Catania before being loaned out to the Middle East. Yuto Nagatomo is the one major success, with the full-back a regular at Inter Milan. Apart from the ex-FC Tokyo star and the Iranian Minister of Defence Rahman Rezaei, there hasn't been much to broadcast home about - in marked contrast to the Bundesliga and English Premier League.

It is not just about players, though local interest helps a lot. Calciopoli and subsequent problems have been damaging to an extent, but it is more about the general image of Serie A - the crown has slipped. Chelsea, vying with West Ham for the title of third biggest team in London for much of the past few decades are, in Asia, now generally bigger news than a giant such as Juventus.

When it comes to Europe, while Italian teams can still lift old Big Ears, their general presence at the pointy end of the tournament is fading. Just four appearances in the last five quarter-final rounds is damaging in Asia, where fans, on the whole, like to be associated with winners. The relative lack of world names compared to a decade ago is another minus. Big stars no longer head to Italy in big numbers. Not being able to compete financially with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City or Real Madrid may be a financial reality but doesn't send a winning message.

Italy may have run rings around England at Euro 2012, but in Asia 2013 Serie A has been left standing in the face of a Premier League that is imaginative, creative and aggressive in promoting its product. The big three teams have just started to get going but are a long way behind the likes of Manchester United, helped by the fact that the English language is an under-appreciated part of the English success.

Those big three - Milan, Inter and Juventus - are still big but the rest are struggling. When talking about the strongest league in the world, fans debate, or at least did until recently, as to which team would triumph if the tenth-placed teams from La Liga and the Premier League met on the pitch. There is little doubt that the tenth best team in England gets considerably more exposure in the east than their Italian equivalents. In Asia, Italy has some catching up to do.

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