Peter Velappan: The man behind the Asian resurgence in soccer

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In 2007, FIFA has their presidential elections, and Sepp Blatter, the present FIFA president is running again. Sepp Blatter has made more waves with his cronyism and his questionable business dealings, than any noteworthy contribution to soccer during his tenure as president. See Andrew Jennings excellent coverage of the FIFA president in the Beebs ‘Panorama.’
Unfortunately, Peter Velappan, the one candidate who would have made a huge difference in the world of soccer, is retiring in 2007, from his post of Secretary General of the Asian Football Confederation. He has had an exemplary life as a soccer administrator for more than 40 years, both as an honest official and as a visionary, putting Asian soccer up on the map.
The development of top-level football in the region has been hampered by widespread corruption, lack of organization and the physical size of most of the players. But perhaps the most damaging blow is a constituency so large and culturally diverse that any attempt at proper administration, never mind a quorum, has until recently been a maddening and fruitless endeavor.
When Velappan joined the AFC in 1954, there were only twelve countries in the confederation. Now there are 45 countries spread over 11 time zones, from Lebanon to Guam.
Not only is there a recent history of conflict between some of the members (Vietnam and China, and India and Pakistan, for instance), hostility in some cases stretches back centuries. Throw in A-list pariahs such as Myanmar, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and it is remarkable that there have been so few international incidents – or that some teams have not carried assault rifles on to the playing fields. Israel and Syria were in the same Asian Confederation till Israel moved out of the AFC in 1972.
“I can’t deny that this diversity was a problem and challenge when I first came to the job 20 years ago,” says Velappan. “We have half the world’s population, and no confederation has the logistical problems we do. It took us over 10 years to strike a good balance and focus the attention back on football.” A veteran of many acrimonious and exasperating meetings, Velappan enjoys pointing out that football has done more for Asian harmony than any government or diplomatic counsel could ever manage. “We brought Iran and Iraq together after the war,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but we did it. We also brought North Korea and South Korea together on the football pitch, as well as Yemen and Saudi Arabia.”
Velappan was the co-ordinator of the 2002 World Cup and the tournament director. The World Cup was spread over with matches played in South Korea and Japan, two countries who have had a contentious history. This was the first time that the World Cup was held in Asia. A potential logistical nightmare with matches held in two countries in twenty different venues. However, the World Cup went off smoothly with very few glitches, and in doing so, provided the world with some wonderful soccer by Senegal, Turkey, and even the USA. The semifinals, pitted two world powers, Brazil and Germany versus relative minnows South Korea and Turkey. For Asian soccer it was a triumph as South Korea and Japan both did well.
Velappan also heads Vision Asia, a program devoted to popularizing soccer and closing the gap in standards between Asian soccer and the rest of the world by addressing eleven key disciplines that include the associations, marketing, grassroots, coach training, refereeing, sports medicine, men‘s competitions, women’s competitions, futsal, media and fans.
As the Project Director of Vision Asia, Velappan’s time is now dedicated to development work and to a cause that he truly believes in. “With 3.7 billion people, how can we go wrong? We are going through one of the best periods in Asian football and we must take advantage of the momentum created by Korea and Japan in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I coined the phrase ‘The Future is Asia’ and I am convinced of it.”
As Socceroo fans, we have Peter Velappan to thank, as he was instrumental in getting Australia’s admission into the tougher Asian Zone, from the much weaker Oceanic Zone. A move that has only strengthened soccer in Australia. We are no longer the laughing stock in Europe in running up scores against Western Samoa, now that we have to play tougher teams like Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.
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