HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — There were so few people watching Vietnam play Hong Kong in a recent Asian Cup qualifier that turnstile staff hardly bothered checking tickets on the damp, cold Hanoi evening.
Rewind seven months, when Arsenal visited, and the scene was very different.
Families wearing the London club's red-and-white flocked past frenetic scalpers. From his rooftop portrait, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh gazed down on the 40,000 people who cheered as the Gunners shredded the national team.
Many Southeast Asian soccer fans care about European clubs more than the local teams. Across the region, leagues and clubs struggle to get even a fraction of the support, attention and revenue that European clubs enjoy. Match-fixing, corrupt governing bodies and chaotic management are partly to blame.
"It's a mess," said Nguyen Van Nam, among the mere 5,000 people who attended Vietnam's 3-1 victory over Hong Kong. The 38-year-old decided to attend with his two soccer-mad children only after he couldn't get tickets for Arsenal's preseason exhibition in July.
"Otherwise I wouldn't be here," he said.
Southeast Asia is home to 620 million people, around the same as Latin America, but hasn't sent a team to the World Cup since 1938, when Indonesia played as "Dutch East Indies" because it was a colony.
That many fans across the region only have eyes for European soccer is easy to understand when one consider Asian Cup results. Thailand and Indonesia lost all their six matches in the last edition of the 58-year-old competition, combining to score just nine goals. Singapore and Vietnam scrapped a single victory each.
Fan fascination with European stars such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi seems limitless. Southeast Asia's resilient economies and increasingly wealthy fans are major attractions for European clubs. Arsenal was one of seven Premier League clubs that visited preseason. About one-third of Premier League shirt sponsors are Asian. Commercial deals are multiplying, from Manchester United-branded credit cards in Indonesia to a Chelsea-partnered whisky in Myanmar.