The Exclusive Asian Champions League

In a week where the Asian Football Confederation is hailing another milestone for the Asian Champions League attendance figures, Amro examines why the AFC’s most prestigious club competition is such an exclusive club to be a part of.

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At first viewing the figures showing rising attendances appear positive, and you would be forgiven for hailing the role of the AFC in promoting the tournament in the largest continent of them all; a feat considering the myriad footballing cultures which are as diverse as they are far-flung. The figures in Iran, for instance, are eye watering, and would be the envy of many a top club in Europe, China also have impressive figures considering the popularity of the game in the country. Year on year rises in the attendance figure are a healthy indication for any football tournament. However, a more intimate inspection of the figures reveals not all is well within the Asian Club game.  Out of the 47 member nations of the AFC only 10 are allowed to participate in the top tier club competition, five from West Asia (Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Iran) and five from East Asia (Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, Thailand). Clubs from the remaining nations are only allowed entry into the second tier AFC Cup tournament or the AFC President’s Cup, while some do not participate at all for varying reasons, ranging from the political to the financial, to (perhaps most frustratingly for proponents of football) a simple lack of interest.

The AFC seems intent on inclusion (exclusion is more of an apt term) criteria and affixing labels to nations, “mature”, “developing” & “emerging” are buzz words at their Malaysia HQ. Teams of inspectors are dispatched to a selection of countries to assess their development of the game, endless boxes are ticked or crossed feverishly, all to determine how deserving the club is of being included in the trendy, upmarket club which the guys at the AFC have concocted. While those who wish to defend or support this notion would say the confederation simply cares about improving the club game, but they would be missing the point. It is not the development of the game that worries the fans, it is the manner in which they are executing it which suggests there is a more sinister undercurrent. The AFC seems quick to exclude many a nation from certain competitions, and with no remorse; they peddle the top tier tournament as an aspiration for those who do not meet the criteria, dangling the carrot (which has ever more stringent & changing requirements-bi annual changes are the order of the day presently). They are so obsessed with the desire to ameliorate the game that they are foregoing the inclusive aspect of football.

How can a country’s league improve when the teams that inhabit it are forbidden from participating in the premier (and in some cases even the second tier) tournament? Why are the criteria so rigid in such a varying continent, where there is a massive disparity in financial resources available to each FA/League governing body? Such questions and more besides are not answered by the men in suits in Asia. Recently, and after criticism from multiple sources, the AFC have decided to make the ACL more inclusive, but with one caveat: Your club must meet the criteria. A glimmer of hope, potentially, quickly extinguished by the self defeating nature of the criteria.

Perhaps the most alarming issue in the midst of this all, is the funneling of teams’ entry into the AFC Cup, who are in some instances superior to their counterparts in the ACL. Not only this but the denial of fervent fans who are both more boisterous and loyal than many clubs fans in the “top tier” tournament. While the AFC are quick to praise the figures of rising attendances, they neglect mention of embarrassingly poor attendances in some Gulf states, the following video shows the game played last week in the ACL between Al Ettifaq of Saudi and Al Shabab of UAE, attended by a paltry 430 fans:

Meanwhile 14,000 turned out to watch Duhok of Iraq lose to a late goal by Al Faisaly of Jordan in March in the AFC Cup. Both teams, by the way, very capable of beating the two previous ACL sides mentioned, among others in the continents top tournament.

While it easy to criticise and point out the flaws of the AFC and their shortcomings, it seems only apt to put forward some suggestions for the club game in Asia.  Actions we feel would improve the game in both a constructive and inclusive manner.

  1. Most obviously and effortlessly of all, relax the selection criteria which have excluded so many clubs and their fans from the joys of the Champions League. In their place we propose a return to simpler criteria which are used for the AFC Cup competition. This would allow many more nations to compete in both tournaments, not only would the quality & prestige of the ACL be improved, but so would that of the AFC Cup.
  2. Play the continental club tournaments during the usual football season from September to May. This will stop teams from losing top players during the long current break from May to September, which can really detract from the tournaments. Travelling would not be an issue until the knockout phases of the tournament.
  3. Play off routes pre-season to weed out “weaker” teams, as is the case in Africa and Europe. This would allow the teams to merit their place in each tournament and make sure the tournaments are comprehensive.
  4. Define broad improvement guidelines which are tailor made for each country, that will allow steady and controlled improvement with less time pressure so as not to detract from the spectacle of the game.
  5. Make the tournaments fan centric to make sure attendance figures continue to rise with the addition of all Asian countries willing to participate.

For a tournament which had its first edition in 1967, it has fallen from grace rapidly in recent years, most simply and largely due to its now exclusive nature. If Asian club football is being run by AFC employees with tick box forms, then that is a damning indictment on the state of the club game in Asia. As well as a stark warning for the very future of the game and its fledgling popularity in many regions of the continent.

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