The Sorry State of South East Asia Soccer’s Restart
South East Asia soccer, it’s a hotbed of heated rivalries and fan culture that rivals Europe, and of course, it’s always a shambles.
While football across the globe has suffered at the hands of this relentless pandemic, we have seen the world came complete the 2019/20 seasons in Europe, and kick off their 2020/21 seasons.
Countries such as Germany are even allowing fans back into stadiums across the country, albeit in reduced numbers.
So, what of South East Asia soccer then?
For anyone who has holidayed in tropical hot spots such as Langkawi, Bali, or Phuket you will know the term ‘well organised’ isn’t used often, as life seems to roll from one unexpected occurrence to the next.
Here we’ll take a look at how the South East Asian leagues are shaping up as action returns to the pitch.
Malaysia Super League
The Malaysia Super League is easily the best run league in the region, but even they are not immune from making eye-brow raising decisions.
Boasting world-class stadiums, a national team the envy of the region, and powerhouse clubs such as Johor Darul Ta’zim, Kedah, and Selangor, you would assume the lockdown and subsequent restart would go smoothly.
On 13 March 2020, the league was suspended indefinitely. Then in May, it was announced the league would resume in September. This was of course subject to the correct testing and isolation measures being in place.
This all makes sense, but what makes this decision go from common sense to conspiracy theory is when the league was paused after four rounds. The 6-time defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim were top of the ladder, chasing their seventh consecutive Malaysia Super League title.
Winning the title also garners direct entry into the lucrative AFC Champions League for 2021.
It was announced that rather than re-start and finish the home and away schedule of 22 games, the league season would be reduced to a mere 11 games. This did seem that the Southern Tigers had indeed been given a free-kick.
As it finished, JDT topped the league by 10 points, taking 29 from a possible 33 points. Kedah finished second, and qualified for the AFC Cup group stage.
Take nothing away from Johor Darul Ta’zim though, they did exactly what they had to do. Given the points gap, JDT would most likely have won the league if it was 11, 22, or 44 games.
If you’re ever in Singapore and fancy an away day not to be missed, take the trip to the 40,000 capacity Sultan Ibrahim Stadium in Johor – but take ear plugs.
Thai League 1
Much like their Malaysian counterparts, Thailand pressed pause on the Thai League 1 season in March. However, unlike Malaysia, Thailand look set to enjoy a full 30-match season.
Where things are a little different here is often leagues across South East Asia run to a calendar year, as the wet season wreaks havoc on pitches and travel plans alike from November to February.
To counter this, in April, the Football Association of Thailand announced the season would recommence in September. Traditionally, the Thai League 1 season finishes in October. However, this year, it will continue through to May 2021.
This does make a bit of a mess for 2021 AFC Champions League spots, though. Clubs need to have their registration submitted to the AFC by the Football Association of Thailand in December. Therefore, the decision was made that whoever is in the top four after the first half of the season will qualify.
As it stands at the time of writing, 11 teams have five games to play before the half-way point, and 10 of those 11 teams are separated by seven points, so it is definitely all to play for!
With BG FC out in front on 22 points from eight matches, it’s not unrealistic to think teams will go all-in on trying to grab a top four spot at the halfway mark.
Although, If there is little to play for in the second half of the season, it could make for a lacklustre competition.
Indonesia Liga 1
Where do we start with Indonesia’s Liga 1?
Indonesia has arguably the best fan culture in South East Asia. Teams from every division have ‘ultras’, incredible choreography, and fairy-tale stories such as PSS Sleman’s fan club sponsoring the team through merchandise sales.
And yet, fans in Indonesia are regularly let down by the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI).
The 2020 Liga 1 season started at the end of February, with Bali United the defending champions after a runaway win the season before. However, the season was only three matchdays old when it was postponed on March 15.
The initial suspension was, bizarrely, to last for two weeks, ending on March 30. Sensibly, the suspension was then extended to May 29.
Nothing happened at the end of May, or well into June. Then on 27 June the PSSI announced the league would resume in October.
At this time, the idea of having a ‘bubble’ in Java was put in place, with all teams not based in Java staying in Jogjakarta to play the season behind closed doors.
The stage was set; we had a start date of October 5, a bubble, fixtures, and…
On September 29 PSSI delayed the re-start by another month police hadn’t given permission to allow fans to attend.
So now we wait.
The one thing the PSSI have done well is state that no teams will be relegated at the conclusion of the 2020 Liga 1 season, and that two teams from Liga 2 will be promoted to the top flight for 2021, making it a 20-team competition.
Singapore Premier League
The Singapore Premier League is an interesting one.
The football is dire, with teams playing in multi-purpose venues on artificial grass. To be able to have a nine-team competition, there are invitational teams from Brunei and Japan.
To add insult to injury, the Japanese outfit Albirex Niigata did the treble in 2016 and 2017, and the double in 2018. This was all before the recent rule changes that limited the number of over-age players teams could field.
Aside from a small die-hard group of hard-core football fans, almost nobody in Singapore cares about the league or pays it any attention.
In fact, more locals make the trip across the Johor Strait to the afore mentioned Sultan Ibrahim Stadium to watch JDT play. Feel free to insert your jokes about Manchester United fans all living in London here…
The Singapore Premier League was put on hold on the 27th of March, with the Football Association of Singapore scheduling the restart for 17 October, subject to Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth approval.
Like most things in Singapore, the postponement and restart has been well organised and with little fuss.
We wait with baited breath for the recommencement…
Philippines Football League
The Philippines Football League has had a colourful history, even though it is just four years old.
The league was launched in 2016 at the illustrious Shangri-La at the Fort in Bonifacio Global City to much fanfare, with competition kicking off in 2017.
Everything was smooth sailing during the inaugural season. However, the league hit troubled waters in 2018 and was disbanded due to financial issues.
Taking its place was the Philippine Premier League, which folded after just one match day.
The Philippines Football League was then revived for 2019, and was won by Ceres-Negros, who have actually been crowned champions in all three seasons and have performed well in the AFC Cup.
So what does this all mean for the 2020 season? Well, it’s anyone’s guess really.
The league was to be called The Philippines Football League brought to you by Qatar Airways (try singing ‘have you ever seen Manila win The Philippines Football League brought to you by Qatar Airways?’ without passing out).
What we do know is three-time champions Ceres-Negros have been sold and changed their name to United City Football Club. And no, I didn’t make that up, it’s real.
The club have fallen on hard times, as team owner Leo Rey Yanson’s shipping company Ceres Liner struggled. Yanson sold the club to Emirati-Philippine sports marketing firm MMC Sportz Asia who retained most of the players and came up with the curious name.
The official website has a start date of October 20 for The Philippines Football League brought to you by Qatar Airways to kick-off, here’s hoping that happens.
Giải Bóng đá Vô Địch Quốc Gia Việt Nam, or V.League 1 as it is more commonly known, is something of an unknown quantity.
What we do know is the 2020 league season kicked off in March, played three rounds, paused until June, and has been in full swing since then.
V.League 1 is a 14 team competition, and after 13 rounds was split into a top eight who would fight for the championship and a bottom six who will try and stave off relegation.
The Vietnamese league isn’t different to other leagues around the world just in name or format either.
When the league resumed in June it did so in front of packed houses and no social distancing, as 30,000 filled the Nam Dinh stadium to watch the home side lose to Viettel.
Other ASEAN Football Federation Leagues
The ASEAN Football Federation was founded in 1984 by the nations of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. They have since been joined by Australia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.
It’s a disgrace that Australia plays in Asia and takes one of their World Cup spots every four years, so they won’t be given more air time here, and at the time of writing enquiries about the state of play in Brunei, Cambodia, Lao, Myamar, and Timor-Leste have gone unanswered.
We’ll update this article when we can find out more.
In the meantime, pick a South-East Asian team (Johor Darul Ta’zim and Bali United are great choices if you love fan culture) then follow them on Instagram and get ready to cheer on your new-found friends as they battle other clubs and the bureaucracy.