The London Summer Olympics is fast approaching and 204 countries are expected to participate, but one particular sport, football (soccer) is expected to grab headlines in countries like South Korea and Japan. To get a seismograph reading on Asia’s football fervor we spoke to John Duerden, a veteran sports journalist who has reported on Asian football from his home base in Seoul. Heralded as the “Voice of Asian Football” by BBC Radio, Duerden continues to report for The Guardian, ESPN, FOX Sports, and the International Herald Tribune. In his interview with AsianTalks, he also offered some prognosis for the Asian teams in the upcoming Olympics.
AsianTalks: Tell us briefly about your background and — what is it about Asian football that has kept you engaged?
Originally I’m from the northwest of England, from a town called Blackburn, which is near Manchester. I was living in London before I came to Korea.
The turning point for me was the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan. I came to Korea, just before that, and I never really left, to be honest! I kind of did, but not really. And I met my wife, my wife is a Korean woman, and I just stayed here to write more about Korea and Asian football, mostly. Because not that many people do, or at that time didn’t.
There was a lot of interesting things happening, especially in football. The 2002 World Cup was a fantastic starting point. It was an amazing time to be in Korea — a magical time really — ten years ago.
So the 2002 World Cup was a catalyst of me coming to Asia. And I’ve never really left.
Of course! He’s one of the few people from Korea and Asia who transcends sports. He’s a national figure. I’m not a Manchester United fan, but I do like Park Ji Sung actually. He’s the perfect ambassador for Korea and Asian football, in not just his play but the way he is. And I’d like to see him do well because he does have one more season with Manchester United and then, who knows.
AsianTalks: What’s a common misperception about Asian football that you try to rectify through your sports journalism?
That’s a good question. When you talk about Asia, as you know, it’s difficult to generalize because if you talk about Seoul, there’s very little Seoul has in common with another part of Asia like Iran or Dubai. But I think football is one those things that is bringing the UK and Asia closer together, a little bit.
I think there’s lots of misconceptions of Asia, including the notion, for example, Asian players are almost too short to play in the big leagues, so not good enough. There’s also a stereotype Asian football players are being brought into UK teams to play for commercial reasons. Some also believe Asian football is a hotbed of corruption, and match fixing, which (laughs) is not completely untrue.
I think for me, if I write about these things, it’s a bit difficult because I write mostly for the international media and I also write freelance. So, if I write for an international organization I have to make it interesting and relevant to their readers. And often the readers want to hear these crazy stories about crazy Asia, the wild things that happen . So I try not to do that too much if I can! But what I try to do most of all is trying to push the fact that there are really good Asian players in football. It isn’t about how big they are or how small they are, because their technical ability is excellent.
Most of all I try to drive home that Asia is going places, in football at least, and that it’s going to get better and better all the time.
AsianTalks: What’s your prognosis for Asian football in the upcoming Olympics?
In terms of Olympic teams, the Japanese Olympic team looks good. At the moment, the Japanese football is going through something — not quite a golden age — but certainly approaching something special.
They have lots of young players, and many of them are going to European teams on a regular basis. So I think the Japanese team has a very good chance of doing well at the Olympics. It’s difficult to say how well, because you don’t know much about the other (non-Asian) teams so much. Japan is playing Spain, and I imagine the Spanish team is very good. And in their matches against Honduras, Morocco, there’s a good chance they’ll get to the next round.
Korea again, in their group with Mexico, Gabon and Switzerland looks — not impossible — but not easy! But I think there’s a decent chance again — for them to make it to the next stage.
So those two I think have the best chances.
AsianTalks: When you interview sports people in Asia, do you use translators? How approachable are the sports personalities in Asia?
One good thing is people know who I am in Asia. So if I go to Japan, China, or Southeast Asia people are usually happy to help me.
That’s the nice thing about Asian football. Compared to some European leagues, people are more approachable when it comes to sports. That’s why I especially like the Korean national team. It’s much more open than the English national team is. And the fans can get closer to the players, and I think that’s reflected throughout Asian football.
Overall people are very friendly and open. And it’s very nice.