Despite the domination of cricket throughout the Indian subcontinent, it is not the most popular watched or played sport throughout the continent of Asia. Like much of the rest of the world, that remains the preserve of football, which takes its place along a wide range of indigenous sports played throughout the various countries that make up the continent. India, which has one-sixth of the population of the world, doesn’t feature in the list of top 10 football leagues in Asia let alone the world.
No Asian country has won the World Cup to date, although South Korea did make the semi-finals back in 2002, when it was played on home soil.
But with the rise to prominence of the Saudi Pro League this year, it seems a matter of time before one club, or indeed, several from the region, begin to make a wider impact on the global stage, perhaps as early as 2025 when the Club World Cup is expanded to include 32 teams.
The ten best leagues in Asia
There are various yardsticks by which to determine the best Asian leagues.
Popularity in terms of numbers watching games in stadiums and in televisions is one criteria, although that may depend upon factors such as size of the local population, how embedded football is within local tradition and culture, and the strength of competing sports.
Attendance figures also can be an unreliable guide. For example, whilst the number of people attending games in the Indian Super League has been declining, viewing figures, either via mainstream media or streaming has steadily increased, with the 2021 season revealing a total audience in excess of 210 million.
Perhaps a more reliable guide as to the quality of Asian leagues are ranking of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) which are based over a five year period. Again, though, these do not reflect the growing importance of the Saudi Pro League, which has really grown exponentially since the country’s sovereign Private Investment Fund (PIF) decided to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the sport in pursuit of their ambition to make it one of the top five leagues in the world within the next five years.
Attendance figures are not always a good indicator of a strength of a league either. Comparatively few people watch the UAE Pro League in person or the Qatar equivalent, but that does not stop wealthy owners attracting some top talent, with European stars at the end of their careers heading there for one last lucrative pay day, like Andrés Iniesta, who, at the age of 39, has just joined Emirates.
Top 10 football league in Asia
|League||Country||AFC Ranking over five years||Age of the League||Attendance figures||Football’s ranking among sports|
|Pro League||United Arab Emirates||95.94||1973||308,000 (est.)||1|
|J League 1||Japan||93.46||1992||4.4 million||2|
|K League||South Korea||87.48||1983||1.43 million||1|
|Super League||China||86.47||2004||3.74 million||4|
|Saudi Pro League||Saudi Arabia||84.27||1976||2.08 million||1|
|Qatar Stars League||Qatar||82.41||2008||65,000 (est.)||1|
|Persian Gulf Pro League||Iran||71.85||2001||320,000 (est.)||1|
|A League||Australia||64.75||2004||1.30 million||7|
|Uzbekistan Super League||Uzbekistan||43.30||1992||No figures available||1|
|Thai League 1||Thailand||42.57||1996||1.06 million||1|
- Pro League UAE
The oldest of all the leagues in this table, having been established back in 1972, the most successful team in the history of the competition is Al-Ain, who have won the league, which operates on a promotion and relegation basis, 13 times.
They are the only UAE team to have tasted Champions League success, back in 2003..
2. J League
It took until 1992 before Japan had its own professional league, when the decision was made to create the J-League. However, since then it has developed into one of the strongest in Asia, and it has produced more than its fair share of players who have gone on to enjoy success in Europe.
Kashima Antlers is the most successful in terms of league title wins, and they are one of six Japanese clubs to have enjoyed Champions League success, the others being Gamba Osaka, Tokyo Verdy, JEF United Cherdy, Jubilo Iwaty, and Urawa Red Diamonds (three time winners).
3. K League
It is a similar story in South Korea, where the K League has become one of the strongest leagues on the continent. The most successful team in the history of the competition are Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors with nine league titles to their name.
They have also won the Champions League twice, along with Ulsan Hyundai, Suwon Samson Bluewings, and Seongnam FC. All of them have been outstripped by Pohang Steelers, though, who have won it on three occasions.
4. Super League
The Chinese Super League provides a salutary lesson to Saudi as to what can happen with too rapid expansion. In the early part of the last decade they began a policy of attracting some of the top talent in Europe and South America before it all collapsed in a sea of debt, and many clubs folded. Meanwhile, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s vow to turn the country into World Cup winners by 2050 now looks to be a pipe dream at best.
Guangzhou have won the most league titles so far (eight), and they are also two times winners of the Champions League, whilst Liaoning won it back in 1990.
5. The Saudi Pro League
Such is the investment and speed of development in the Saudi Pro League that it seems destined to take over as the strongest in the continent very soon. As it is, Al-Hilal can claim to be the most successful team in the history of the Champions League, being the only team to have won it in four occasions. Al-Ittihad have won it twice.
6. The Qatari Pro League
Despite the surprise, and suspicion, surrounding the decision to award the 20222 World Cup to Qatar, the league is well funded, even though attendances at domestic matches remains very low.
Al-Sadd have dominated when it comes to league title wins, with 16 already to their name.
The closest that any club from Qatar have come to winning the Champions League was in 1995, when Al-Arabi were the beaten finalists.
7. The Persian Pro League
The Persian Pro League is the most popular league in a country that is obsessed with football, although this is not always reflected in attendance figures, where grounds are often shut because the authorities regard football with some suspicion, often the catalyst for protest movements.
Persepolis are the reigning champions and the most successful in terms of title wins, but it is Teheran based Esteghal who have the best Champions League record, with two wins to their name. Another Teheran side, PAS, won it in 1993.
8. The A League
Football struggles in Australia to find an audience, although it remains to be seen what the long-term effects are after co-hosting this year’s Women’s World Cup. Geographically they are based in Oceania, although the country has chosen to switch to the Asian Football Confederation to ensure more competitive intercontinental and international fixtures.
That is why Western Sydney Wanderers are included on the list of Champions League winners, although Sydney FC have won more league titles than any other team.
9. Uzbekistan Super League
Founded in 1992, the Uzbekistan Super League currently consists of 14 teams, with the most successful to date being Pakhator, with 13 titles in all. No Uzbeki team has yet to achieve substantive Champions League success.
10. Thai League 1
The top flight league in Thailand currently consists of 16 clubs, and operates on a promotion and relegation basis.
Buriram United have won the league title more than any other club, and they are also the reigning champions. But it is Thai Farmers Bank who have the best record in the Champions League, winning it twice in successive years in 1994 and 1995.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.