Keeping up with South East Asia's football fanatics


With the high-profile sacking of manager Jose Mourinho from Barclays Premier League champions Chelsea, we look at the soap opera of English football and find out why it is so popular across Asia.

When champions Chelsea parted company from their volatile and charismatic manager Jose Mourinho this month, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was just a story for football fans in south London.

But this is big news. The English Premier League (EPL) is a global brand worth billions of pounds. Millions of fans across Asia follow the fortunes of their favourite teams, with EPL matches regularly screened on primetime TV in countries like Singapore and Indonesia.

Twitter has even created an interactive map to show where fans are based: the news of Mourinho's departure is likely to be particularly hot in Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, where around 20% of fans are Chelsea supporters.

So what makes Asians identify so strongly with English football and choose to support teams half way around the world?

These are no ordinary fans. In a video about football in China, Dan Byrne from Spiel magazine calls them Iron Fans on account of their fanaticism, whilst a survey of League Managers by Barclays claims that Asians are the most passionate fans in the world.

That goes for the InsightAsia team too! Take for example our very own Ramesh Sundararajan, IA's regional director of quantitative and advance analytics. Ramesh is Indian, lives in Singapore and he's an avid Arsenal fan, whilst his son supports Manchester United. Ramesh says:

"EPL is very open in terms of competitiveness.  The team at the bottom at Christmas 2014 is now at the top at Christmas 2015 [Leicester City], anything is possible on a given day, making it very attractive. Other leagues have no more than 3 teams that will win."

Heroes and villains

Certainly, the EPL attracts some of the best players on the planet, and has an open, attacking style and plenty of goals.

But beyond that, the EPL is an unfolding soap opera played out each week with ever more eye-popping plot lines.

Who would have thought that Jose Mourhino, last season's title-winning manager at Chelsea, would be ousted following a dressing-room rebellion that leaves his former team fighting for survival near the relegation zone?

Or that lowly Leicester City, last season apparently doomed to relegation, now deservedly lead the EPL, ahead of giants like Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool?

These are dreams that any fan can buy into.

Trophy hunters

But long-distance love affairs can fizzle out if you never get to see your sweetheart, so in 2003 the Premier League Asia Trophy was established.

Every two years, four EPL teams travel to Asia to meet the fans and play each other in a knockout competition. The venue is rotated and has so far taken in Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and China. 2015 saw hosts Singapore fit over 52,000 fans into the National Stadium to watch Arsenal beat Everton 3-1 in the final.

And with every visit the players get rock star treatment from the fans. In Vietnam, fans queued overnight at the airport to greet Arsenal and see them become the first EPL club to play in the country.

In Thailand, sports reporter Peerawit Anantasirarat sums up the atmosphere:

"They're like stars, like Hollywood stars coming here. Football fans feel like that. When John Terry came out, or when Rooney came out at the airport, we're seeing superstars come here. It's amazing."

Careful cultivation

Such branding by EPL clubs in the region has been carefully cultivated for many years. Sponsorship has become a major money-spinner, with many companies looking to be associated with the dreams and success stories the EPL provides.

Everton Football Club, for example, has been sponsored by Chang beer from Thailand for over 10 years, the longest running shirt sponsorship in the EPL.

ThaiBev CEO Mr. Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi explained the appeal on the Everton website:

"Chang’s sponsorship with Everton football team is our proudest accomplishment, as we are inspiring people, especially youngsters, regardless of status to become responsible people in society, with positive thinking and attitude – all gained through football."

Young people want football, and sponsorship becomes a means to show social responsibility and to connect with passionate, aspirational fans. In Thailand, Chang have helped Everton to establish a grassroots football competition, the Chang-Everton cup. With standout players from the competition going on to be coached by Everton staff, aspiring young footballers can start to live the dream.

A dream come true

InsightAsia's Ramesh Sundararajan knows he might just have missed his chance to play for Arsenal, but earlier this summer he was able to fulfil another dream - to see his beloved Gunners play at the Emirates stadium in north London in the EPL. Ramesh was in the UK on business, so IA's International Business Director Claire Koch fixed things up. According to him:

“Apart from ticking another box in the bucket list, it was such an amazing experience to be in the thick of things and cheering along with the hordes of fans that make EPL the happening league”

The Gunners did not let Ramesh down, securing a hard-fought 3-1 win against Sunderland. The EPL dream is alive and well!

Posted on December 30, 2015 and filed under Culture.