By JOHN DUERDEN, Associated Press Writer
SEOUL, South Korea (AP)â€”The chaotic world of Iranian soccer is not often held aloft as an example for others to follow, but as far as FIFA is concerned, the English Premier League should be taking a page out of Tehranâ€™s book.
Soccerâ€™s world governing body has long wanted the worldâ€™s richest league to reduce the number of teams from 20 to 18 to free more time for international matches. Englandâ€™s clubs have fiercely opposed any attempt to trim their numbers.
In Tehran, however, the Iranian Football Federation plans to reduce the number of teams in its top flight from 18 to 16â€”and then maybe even 14.
In reducing the numbers, the IFF is hoping to increase the standard of professionalism in the league, partly to comply with stricter entry criteria for the Asian Champions League that will be revised for 2009.
Among other requirements for the revamped Asian tournament, rules setting minimum standards for stadiums, marketing, transportation and infrastructure will be put in place.
Former IFF head and current Asian Football Confederation executive member Mohsen Safaei Farahani warned Iranian clubs, all but two of which are state-owned, that they need to modernize.
â€œThe new criteria has shocked Iranian football managers and they need to quickly review their statutes and guidelines,â€ Farahani said. â€œIt is a warning to all clubs that they should rethink their current position.â€
Afshin Ghotbi, coach of Iranâ€™s biggest club Persepolis, agrees.
â€œOur football is not truly professional. We are not prepared to play 34 matches. There is not enough discipline within the infrastructure to hold such a long season,â€ he said.
Iran is going against the grain in Asia, however, as a number of federations across the continent, which in soccer terms now stretches all the way to Australia, are looking to expand top competitions.
Asiaâ€™s oldest professional league is still growing. South Koreaâ€™s K-League, which started with five teams in 1983, will next year field at least 15.
In late April it was announced in Seoul that the divided province of Gangwon will be the home of a new club from 2009.
In welcoming the news, Korean FA chief and FIFA vice president Dr. Chung Mong-joon hinted that there could even be 16 clubs next season
â€œBy the end of the year there could also be a new team in Gwangju, and weâ€™re are doing all we can toward making that happen,â€ Chung said.
South Korea is taking it slowly. There are concerns that too many teams too quickly can bring about a case of quantity over quality, as Japan discovered in the mid-90s.
The J-league came into existence in 1993 with 10 teams, but just five years later had expanded to 18. The rapid expansion also meant a growth in the number of lopsided matches and a fall in attendance. In 1999, the league was reduced to 16 teams, only reverting to 18 in 2005.
Australia, like South Korea, is taking its time. The A-League, which emerged following the demise of the financially embattled National Soccer League, has consisted of eight teams since its inception in 2005.
Recent plans to increase the number of teams to 10 have been put on hold and proposed newcomers from Queensland stateâ€”the Gold Coast Galaxy and Townsvilleâ€™s Northern Thunderâ€”have been given more time to prepare financially.
â€œExpansion of the A-League is a critical issue to the continuing evolution and growth of football,â€ Football Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley said.
â€œWe stated that our approach to expansion has to be both prudent and plannedâ€”and it is.â€
Authorities in New Delhi are happy to be less prudent as they plan the speedy growth of the Indian league.
After just one I-League season, the All India Football Federation will add two more teams to have 12 in the 2008-09 season, and plans to have 16 by 2010.
Indiaâ€™s national team coach Bob Houghton is happy with the rapid expansion. â€œThe I-League must have a minimum of 16 teams,â€ the Englishman said.
The 2008 Chinese Super League has expanded to include 16 teams and there are plans to add two more in the next few years.
In most of Asia as well as England, bigger seems to be better.