Aussie hopes going Down Under
Asia's premier club competition had been going almost four decades by the time Australia entered in 2007. Sydney FC knocked on the door of the party in the first season but the year after, Adelaide United kicked it down to announce the A-League's arrival to the continental sophisticates inside, a few of which were then tossed out onto the street by the powerful Aussies as they reached the final. "In the beginning we were unknown and they feared us," Sasa Ognenovski, a star of that team, said. "Adelaide put the A-League on the map but it hasn't been the same since."
It hasn't. After Adelaide's adventures, no club has made it past the second round. And with three games down and three to go in the group stage of the 2011 Asian Champions League, both of Australia's representatives, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, are in desperate need of points if they are to keep their slim hopes alive.
These are not exactly minnows. The two biggest cities in Australia have won four of the six titles on offer since the A-League kicked-off in 2005, a trophy tally that surpasses the number of combined points collected from their six games so far in Asia this year. Sydney may have two to Melbourne's one but their job looks tougher. Due to the earthquake in Japan, the Blues have played all their games at home and three tough trips to East Asia await. Melbourne have already lost twice and another defeat would end their chances. The A-League giants simply have to win at home to Tianjin Teda, the group leaders, on Wednesday. A fighting 1-1 draw in the Chinese port city two weeks ago gave the Victorians their only point and a little hope of survival.
These underwhelming results are a source of frustration for fans Down Under, especially as they don't consider their teams to be competing on a level playing field. One oft-mentioned problem is the calendar. The domestic season finishes after the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) registration deadline meaning that Australia's two representatives must wait for over a year to reap continental rewards for domestic toils. Simply put, in the spring months of 2011, the rest of Asia are playing the two best teams in Australia from the 2009-10 season.
"FFA (Football Federation Australia) need to find a solution with the AFC to allow the A-League's current champions to compete immediately," former Australian international and chief football analyst of Sydney-based broadcaster SBS Craig Foster said. "Otherwise the risk is too high, in a small league with limited player squads and significant annual player movement abroad, whether to other Asian leagues or to Europe, that Australian clubs will be less competitive a year later ... at present, the performances of Australian clubs are not fully representative of the level of the league and impacts negatively on the league's image regionally and domestically."
It is a dilemma for the FFA but Australia is not alone in having domestic difficulties that affect continental chances. Korean teams lose players to both overseas clubs and the military every year - since winning the 2010 K-League title FC Seoul have seen three Korean internationals join the army and their coach leave for a bigger pay packet. The player turnover of K-League teams is unmatched. Five members of the team that started Melbourne's 2008 continental campaign did the same against Gamba Osaka in March yet not one of the Suwon Bluewings team that started the 2010 competition was in the line-up for the opener just a year later. Despite this, Korean teams are the most successful in Asia.
Not having a salary cap helps however and A-League clubs must build a squad that is paid not more than AUS$2.35 million (US$2.48 million) with only one marquee star exempted. The Aussie press, more interested in European action than the goings-on of its own confederation, talks of mysterious 'cashed-up' East Asian teams tempting players north. Clubs in Japan, Korea and China would laugh at the 'moneybags' labels thrown their way but they can offer higher wages, and, a fact that is often overlooked, often considerably lower taxes.
Ognenovski made the switch. A vital part of the 2008 Adelaide team, the following season he headed to Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. In 2010, he led the team to the Asian title. He knows better than most about the attractions of Asia. "It is hard to keep a team together with a salary cap," he says. "Players come off contracts and if they have had a successful year, other clubs offer 30, 40, 50,000 dollars a year more and they are off."
Foster believes this will not always be the case, adding: "I would expect the issue to become less critical as the A-League grows and is able to attract and retain players over longer periods, as well as compete on wage structures with regional competitors such as the K-League, Indonesian Premier League and the Chinese Super League, however this is some years away."
There is also the issue of playing continental games in the off-season, because with the size of the AFC, there are always going to be teams involved at various stages of their domestic leagues. It is a regular talking point: is it better to be playing in Asia when your domestic season is in full flow or when you can give the continental competition undivided attention? When asked, most coaches claim that the grass is greener on the other side. The ideal situation is probably the one that recently-crowned champions Brisbane Roar would find themselves in if they were granted immediate access: a battle-hardened and match-fit team that had just finished their domestic season and were able to focus solely on Asian commitments.
Still, even that would not guarantee success as it is not just about dates and dollars. The A-League has made great strides in six years but when it comes to the standard of play on the pitch, it is not yet part of the continent's elite. Adelaide adapted their tactics accordingly while others have not yet done so in the opinion of Iain Fyfe, who played in the tournament for both Sydney in 2007 and Adelaide in 2010 before moving to the K-League in 2011.
"If you watch Sydney and Melbourne in the A-League then they are quite attacking," Fyfe says. "But in the Asian Champions League against the Korean and Japanese teams you can't attack all the time as you are playing against teams, that for the moment at least, are technically better. I think that Adelaide were better prepared. We had a coach who was also familiar with the tournament and we knew how to play against Asian teams.
"We didn't do as well in 2010 as in 2008 but were only lost our second-round match in the last minute of extra-time. You have to set yourself up defensively and get the tactics right. We were very well-organised. We would work on our shape in training over and over again and how to move forward when we had the ball."
Ognenovski tells a similar story: "I think it all comes down to the tactics. With Adelaide, we were physical with a lot of big bodies. We were fit and worked hard. Everyone knew their job and played their position really well. That was very important as if you make a mistake at that level you get punished. That was shown in the final against Gamba Osaka. Two misplaced passes and a lapse in concentration and we lost the first leg 3-0. These days, Korean and Japanese teams expect to do well against Aussie teams. The fear has gone. Asian teams are not scared of us anymore."
That was always likely to happen but there is still respect for the Aussie fighting spirit. Both Sydney and Melbourne need to show it in spades if Australian clubs are not ejected from the 2011 Asian Champions League party before the action really gets going.