New: Cultural and financial obstacles in the way of Asian football development

FFT.com Editor Zee Ko spoke to Chelsea FC's Asia Pacific Managing Director Adrian New on the sidelines of the Sports Matters conference in Singapore...

Chelsea are one of a few English Premier League clubs to have a school in Singapore. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

We’ve been running that for just over a year now, it’s been very successful, we’ve got about 200 kids every Saturday morning up there.

We now operate on two or three different locations, you gotta go to where the kids are, you can’t always expect them to travel to where you are. So that’s worked well for us and we’ve been excited that it’s not all expats, it’s about 60% local kids, 40% expat which is great because we try and make sure our partner price it so it’s affordable for everyone.

It’s about $30 for a 90 minute lesson so hopefully most kids can afford that. But we do also instruct our school partners that 30% of the time they make available is for free so that charities can work with us, and our partners can offer training for kids who otherwise can’t afford it.

You spoke during the Sports Matters conference about how it's not Chelsea, or any other European club for that matter, who will help to grow Asian football. That it's not any of your concern when you come to the region. Care to elaborate a bit on that?

Our responsibility is to ensure people across the world enjoy football, learn how to play in a safe and structured way, and that’s why here in Asia we’ve opened 10 soccer schools, one here in Singapore up at Turf City because we want to make sure kids grow up to love the game. Because the more people that love it, there more fans there become and as long as Chelsea continue to be successful, we get a share of that pie.

But that’s not the same as developing Asian football. It’s developing football within Asia at the grassroots level, it’s not about making sure that the S.League is run professionally or the J-League has the right competitions. There are bodies like the Football Association of Singapore or the Asian Football Confederation, that’s their job.

There's not really that much of a sporting culture in Asia, especially in Singapore as compared to in England. Why do you think that's the case?

Chelsea’s been around for 107 years, there’s been a culture of sport in Europe for a long, long time. So when you grow up as a kid, yeah it’s a big part of your life. 

When I was a kid, 7, 8, 9. I was playing four games at the weekend. The minute you finish school, you run out on to the street, you kick a ball around with your mates, because it was what you did.

In Asia, it’s not quite like that. Firstly, the heat. It’s not so nice to run out and get all hot and sweaty whereas in England your only worry is the rain. But also culturally I think, there’s more of a pressure here to focus on your studies here.

I’ve been travelling in and out of Asia for 13 years and I think the one thing that helps in Europe is a much deeper social security system. Whereas in most Asian countries, kids are responsible for their parents and the parents are responsible for the grandparents. So you’ve got that hierarchy almost, the pressure that says that you at the bottom are responsible to earn money to look after everyone else. It’s almost your duty and in Europe we don’t have that.

There's a different kind of responsibility on Asians which goes against playing sport. Because you go out and play football for two hours, you’re not studying. So who says that’s okay? Now in the ideal world, everyone would say okay because you’re having fun and having fun is part of development and that’s how you grow as a human being but there’s also a school of thought that says those two hours you’re not studying, someone else is and so you’re falling behind and I think as a parent I can understand that as well.

Do you think it's a case of not having that many sporting heroes to look up to, compared to overseas?

I went to see Chelsea when I was 10, and there was Peter Osgood and Charlie Cooke who are still legends today and were earning more money than my dad ever would so they were heroes and people you could look at in the world of sport that could earn more money than a doctor or a lawyer and I think in Asia, maybe specifically in Singapore, you haven’t got enough of those.

You can’t say to your parents I want to be a footballer because then I’ll earn more than they will as a doctor.

How do you go about fixing that?

If you don’t enjoy something, you’ll never be good at it. So the first thing is to create an environment where kids can have fun. So if you go and have a look at a Chelsea school, you’ll see crucial to what we do is to have fun in a safe and professional environment.

We limit the number of kids per coach – just like being at school, the smaller the classes the better the education – coaching is the same so if you go and watch a Chelsea school, you’ll never see more than 16 kids to one coach because that’s the number we think gets the most attention.

So I think we can create an environment where kids have fun and start to learn about sport, but society has to create that environment where sport is recognised as being valuable and something that brings importance to the country.

Back to Chelsea Football Club again, how important is touring in Asia for the club? The media often speaks of 'lucrative' post-season tours, but how profitable are these tours, especially in the era of Financial Fair Play?

Financial Fair Play does mean you have to maximise every revenue opportunity that you can. As a club, we’re very proud that we’ve always operated within FFP and always will quite frankly. We don’t have any debt so every dollar we make is plowed back into the club.

Touring is one of those revenue opportunities, it’s not hugely lucrative because when we tour like last year – we played Bangkok, KL and Jakarta – 92 people travelled from London, it’s not just the 11 players, and they won't sit in Economy I tell you!

There’s a lot of cost around those tours. It is a revenue generating opportunity but more important than that, it’s a chance to connect with fans. It allows us to say to our fans, you’re important, we’re here so you can feel a part of the club because the reality obviously, particularly for us because we’ve got one of the smaller stadia, every game we play is sold out, it’s almost impossible to get a ticket for any Chelsea fan.

Any chance the Blues will be appearing in Singapore anytime soon?

We’ve never been able to play Singapore before so hopefully we can now start to look at coming here. We’ve never been able to do that here but now you have the facilities, we’ve love to think in the years to come, we’ll be coming to Singapore to play a game. Once the grass grows, we’ll be happy to come!

Photo: Branded @ Sports Matters