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ASEAN Super League plans as clear as the Singapore sky

Football fans in Southeast Asia trying to get an idea of what the proposed ASEAN Super League will look like is akin to tourists in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore trying to find the Twin Towers or Marina Bay Sands amid the haze, as John Duerden reports...

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They want to see it, try their best to see it, but most of the time there's just a dirty white wall of nothingness with only the occasional shapes appearing in the distance providing tantalising glimpses.

This is what we know for sure about the ASEAN Super League (ASL) to date: it is supposed to feature at least one team from each of the 12 members of the Asian Football Federation (AFF) except Australia. It is being driven by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), in conjunction with the Asian Football Confederation's marketing partners, World Sports Group.

It is also intended to raise standards and give the region an exciting competition. And that’s about it. There's not much more information than that currently available.

Now that wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the competition wasn't due to start in around 10 months’ time.

With such a lack of clear information, other sources move into the vacuum and what we are left with are reports and then rumours.

One recent example was Singapore's Sunday Times quoting Football Federation of Cambodia vice-president Khiev Sameth as saying that if each franchise has to pay the rumoured US$5 million (S$7.1 million) entrance price, then his country will have to sit it out, for a while at least.

There are similar concerns in Timor Leste and Laos. Some may argue that the minnows won't be missed, but as the philosophy of the project is about helping the region grow, then the smallest have to be involved.

And what of the biggest, Indonesia? The country is currently banned from international football thanks to a FIFA call over governmental interference in the running of the game. This is hardly the fault of the Super League organisers, who could be forgiven for thinking that the situation will be sorted at some point. Still, it is another worry.

There are also reports that Singapore will choose Lions XII to be their representative. This team currently plays in the Malaysia Super League, already taking away Singapore's best players from the struggling S-League. It is also thought that they will be replaced in Malaysia by the Courts Young Lions, depriving the local league of even more young talent.

FAS president Zainudin Nordin is working hard on the new project and some feel that with the S-League having serious problems, it is being viewed as a solution to its domestic woes (as well as a way of using the brand spanking new Sports Hub Stadium). If so, it is a risky strategy.

There there is Thailand, currently the leading ASEAN footballing nation. The noises coming out of the country over the Super League have been mixed. There is a feeling that the Thais are finally pulling clear of the others – Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all have major issues at the moment.

Fans in the Land of Smiles are starting to genuinely think they can be the first Southeast Asian team in the modern era to break out of the region. But just as Thailand think they are out, they get pulled back in.

At this stage, more tests against regional opposition is probably not what Thailand needs, which could explain the speculation that the country's representative may be Port FC, a team from an unfashionable part of Bangkok that has gone through numerous coaches this season and is in the middle of a relegation battle.

There are rumours LionsXII could be Singapore's ASL representative

By the time the Super League starts, Thailand's representative could be second-class. The leading clubs in the top league in the region may well be more interested in the Asian Champions League, and in the case of Buriram United, reaching the knockout stage.

Malaysia could be worse. The national team is literally (in terms of FIFA rankings) and figuratively at a record low, but the Malaysia Super League is fairly vibrant. The suggested representative here is not a struggling top-tier team, but the under-18 side from Frenz United, a private academy.

The Frenz project is an interesting and ambitious one but again, this is unlikely to be what organisers had in mind for the region's biggest competition. And then there's the Philippines and the suggestions the Azkals want to send their under-23 team.

At the moment then, the ASEAN Super League – if it does indeed manage to commence in 2016 – could feature youth teams, relegation battlers and under-23 national teams, and could be missed by Indonesia and the smaller nations. This is not something to get hearts racing or potential sponsors opening their wallets.

Financial backing is important. The major question is this, and whatever else happens, it is one that has to be answered – how will the Super League clubs be able to afford the best talent from each country, some of which are starting to be paid quite handsomely?

If it can't, then it won't be seen as very super. If it can, then it could cause major damage to some of the region's strongest leagues and clubs and will suffer from a lack of support.

In the absence of hard facts, reports and rumours step in and damage the image and devalue the brand of a competition that has not even started. Even without the speculation, there are plenty who are still to be convinced at a more general level that even a well-run and popular ASL is what the region needs.

Nobody has made much effort to make a persuasive case and if this continues, there is a danger that the argument will be lost before a ball is kicked. At the moment, the outlook for the 2016 ASEAN Super League is as clear as the skies above Singapore.

Photos: Weixiang Lim, FourFourTwo