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May 19, 2013

Poetry in motion - Asia's top ten clubs

Understanding Poetry, by J. Evans Pritchard has endured some bad press. It was described as "excrement" by Robin Williams' character in the hit movie Dead Poets Society for trying to grade the importance of poetry in a scientific way. The reason was clear: poetry moves the heart, brain and/or both and can't be rated with such dry criteria.

It brings to mind how one goes about deciding which club is the biggest in Asia. Is it about continental and domestic success, number of fans or star players? Or is it about something a little more intangible - glamour, meaning, importance, romance and tradition?

And though Williams' character told his students to rip out the offending sheets, that doesn't mean, barring the risk of this virtual page suffering the same fate in cyberspace, that the quest to name the continent's one true titan should not be attempted.

10. Buriram United (Thailand)

South-East Asia's number one (and extensively written about) club have come from almost nowhere to stand within reach of the last eight of the Asian Champions League. The club is owned by Newin Chidchob, a controversial and ambitious politician (in SE Asia is there any other kind?) who has built the club into a representative of the rural north-eastern region. There is a new stadium that attracts very healthy support and there are serious and ambitious plans for the future.

9. Al Ain (UAE)

Winners of the inaugural Asian Champions League back in 2003 and second to Al Ittihad in 2005, the team from the Oman border are only kept from becoming a total titan in Asia due to its low crowds. But with matters slowly improving on that score, the club are once again emerging as a force in the region, dominating the UAE league thanks to some exciting talent. However, it needs to return to some semblance of continental glory to finish higher up this list.

8. Jeonbuk Motors (South Korea)

East Asia's most experienced Asian Champions League participant. The Green Men won the 2006 title in thrilling style, a succes that transformed the club at home from a cup team into a title challenger. Domestic triumphs soon followed. In 2011, they took the league and should have taken the continental crown, only to lose at home on penalties in a final they dominated.

7. Pohang Steelers (South Korea)

The most successful club in Asia. Everywhere you go, people know the name Pohang Steelers. But despite the South Koreans donning the continental crown three times already, there is a sense that this is a club that should be bigger. The ingredients are there: a gritty industrial city, a wonderfully compact and intimate Steelyard home, an iconic kit and considerable success. Yet while it is enough for affection and reputation, it can't quite bring mega-status.

6. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

The IFFHS website named Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia as the Asian Club of the (20th) Century and, while some of its rankings can be bizarre, this one was a good shout. The Riyadh team has won 13 domestic titles and all kinds of domestic cups. Then there are the two continental championships. This is a big club in the capital city of one of Asia's big nations. It has a great stadium, stars, success, ambition and glamour.

5. Esteghlal (Iran)

Entering the debate as to which of the two Tehran giants is the bigger club is a pretty futile exercise. Esteghlal have had much more Asian success, claiming two titles and two more final appearances. But whatever their many fans tell you, when it comes to size, Persepolis win every time. That does not mean the Blues, traditionally the team of the ruling-class as opposed to the mass appeal of their rivals, are not big. There are legions of fans all over the world and taking the reins of Esteghlal is a massive responsibility.

4. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

They have one of the most famous coaches at the helm in Marcello Lippi, star players from around the world in Dario Conca and Lucas Barrios and more than a few Chinese internationals. There is also an average attendance of around 40,000. In terms of fame, reputation, media interest and star power, Guangzhou are the biggest on the continent. All they need now is staying power and sustained success.

3. Urawa Reds (Japan)

The fact that Urawa are still the best known J-League team outside Japan annoys fans in the Land of the Rising Sun, who point to the fact that the Reds have taken just one domestic title. But it was the one continental crown in 2007 that put Urawa, and some would say the Asian Champions League itself, on the map. The images of 60,000 fans in the magnificent Saitama Stadium have yet to be surpassed and officials from all kinds of Asian clubs have made the journey to the north of Tokyo just to find out what makes Urawa and their famous fans tick.

2. Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)

The most successful team in the Asian Champions League era and the only one to win back-to-back titles (2004 and 2005). The best team doesn't always win but in 2005, Al Ittihad were head and shoulders above the rest and as the 2006 tournament rolled around, there were few that didn't expect a three-peat.

This cream of the Saudi crop was complemented by high-class imports and an arrogance that was a breath of fresh air in Asia. Complacency and incompetence behind the scenes played their part and the threatened dynasty never eventuated (though a final appearance in 2009 demonstrated that the Tigers are always lurking).

Al Ittihad are one of the few Asian teams whose mere mention is greeted by nods of respect from fans around the continent.

1. Persepolis (Iran)

In terms of success - they don't make the cut. In terms of fame - they fail to meet the criteria. But in terms of sheer size, this club from Tehran steamrolls the competition. People talk of clubs being institutions and if any Asian club is, it is Persepolis. This could be the only club on the continent with its own verb in English. To 'Persepolise' is to mismanage something truly great.

In the 2012 Asian Champions League, a quarter of a million attended their three group games - it's just a shame that there were three games and no more. But in recent years, the fans of the club have certainly been more impressive than most of its players and officials.

Its size makes it difficult to manage. Everyone wants a piece of Persepolis. There are huge forces at work both inside and outside the club that East Asian rivals simply could not fathom. Over a dozen sports daily newspapers in Tehran, the factions in government that run the club, the politicians and administrators all do their bit to stir the red cauldron of passion. If it was managed more professionally, it would still be a powerhouse, but then perhaps it wouldn't quite be Persepolis.

Nowhere else in Asia can rival such beautiful nonsense off the pitch or rival the feeling of being in Tehran with 100,000 fans at the Azadi Stadium. It doesn't have the glamour or the riches of many, but it is a true Asian giant.

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