Jhere in the past there have been occasional mentions in Asian football of how welcome Russia would be in the confederation to really give the continent a sense of geographical completeness. This addition would mean a different conversation now, but in the meantime, if Moscow wants to see what life in football can look like under sanctions, a visit to famous Asian cities such as Tehran, Pyongyang and Yangon would be timely.
The Iranian Football Federation has struggled for years with the restrictions imposed by the United States, even if they are not as strict as the measures taken against Russia. The penalties made headlines ahead of the 2018 World Cup when Nike found themselves unable to supply the team with boots, but there are more serious consequences. Swift, the financial system that allows money to flow easily between international accounts, has been denied to Russian banks. Iran had problems receiving their payments from Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation.
In December 2019, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar blamed this for then national team coach Marc Wilmots being paid late. “Unfortunately, due to unfair sanctions, Fifa cannot pay Iran’s revenue without the permission of the US Department of Treasury and the Iranian federation has been forced to borrow money from a national company to pay national team head coach salary,” he said. . Other foreign coaches and players left due to similar issues. Being on the wrong international run has also made it harder to attract decent international opposition to Tehran for friendlies and harder for Iran to pay for much-needed training camps abroad.
Internationally, things may not be looking so bad with the national team qualifying for a third straight World Cup with games to spare but, domestically, there is major problems for which sanctions may not be the cause but make it more difficult to find solutions. The country’s two biggest clubs, debt-ridden Persepolis and Esteghlal, were expelled from the 2022 Asian Champions League in January as they both belonged to the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
There have been talks and promises of privatization for years, but there is simply no money in Iranian football to attract investors, even if there was the political will to relinquish control of these popular institutions. Domestic broadcast revenue of around £3.5million is spread across the league, as well as other sports. It is no surprise that club officials deplore the difficulty of collecting transfer fees from players, whose development remains a strength of Iran.
North Korea are no strangers to isolation and, as the decision to withdraw from 2022 World Cup qualifying shows, they are known to punish themselves. They have charted their own path which lies between the desire for a form of football juiceor self-reliance, and the recognition that there must be at least some outside engagement.
After three defeats at the 2010 World Cup, the upper echelons of the party took a closer interest and decided that more exposure to the global game was needed. The Pyongyang International Football School was opened soon after with coaches imported from Spain. Students were handpicked from schools across the country and those who continued to impress in the capital were sent to academies in Italy and Spain.
The best of the group that won the Asian Under-16 Championship in 2014 was Han Kwang-song. He then played for Cagliari, Perugia and, for a short time, Juventus, before being sold to Al-Duhail of Qatar. The international career of North Korean Ronaldo was derailed, however, amid reports that much of his salary was sent back to the Pyongyang government, in violation of UN sanctions. The same ended Choe Song-hyok’s time with Fiorentina in 2016.
Myanmar has no such problems of players earning a lot of money abroad. Since last year’s military coup, there hasn’t been much football to speak of, with many players returning to their home provinces to prepare to fight the junta. Football bosses know a lot about sanctions, with their FA chief Zaw Zaw specifically targeted by the European Union for the past decade. Yangon United owner U Tay Za was similarly affected, including by the British government last September to, among other things, supply arms to the military. The tycoon’s bottom line has been affected, leaving little room for football.
There have been attempts to attract Chinese investment, but this is a time when Beijing looks much less favorably than before on money leaving the country to line the pockets of foreign players, agents and clubs, although at least Tay Za was grateful for his Chinese-made smartphone. who helped him survive a helicopter crash in 2011 when he was stranded for four days at an altitude of 15,000 feet.
It is unlikely that Russian football officials will face such a tragedy, but in the absence of a move to Asia, the daily challenges of operating when it is difficult to raise money and play games games should be enough to continue.