Harry Potter and the curse of the Asian Champions League would be quite a tale in which the young wizard investigates just why it is that most teams that don the continental crown tend to lose their heads after celebrations that don't last much longer than a trip on the Hogwart's Express. There have been seven books and eight films in the franchise, matching the eight editions and seven winners since the competition was launched in 2003. Only Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia have returned to drink from the cup of glory that has been, for some others, a goblet of fire.
Urawa Reds famously paid the price in 2007 for becoming the first Japanese team to win the Asian Champions League. Despite those magical nights in Saitama four years ago, the club's loyal fans must be wondering whether they would now be better off had they not lifted the oddly-shaped trophy in front of 60,000 fans just north of Tokyo. After doing so, the team was on course to pass that trickiest of tests, winning both continental and domestic crowns in the same season.
As it all came to a head, Urawa, led by current Australian head coach Holger Osieck, fell apart. Ten points ahead of only challenger Kashima Antlers with just five games left, it was inconceivable that the J-League trophy was not going to stay in Reds' trophy cabinet for another year. Due to Asian exertions however, Urawa were exhausted. Just one goal and three points came in the final 450 minutes of action.
The penultimate match was a home defeat by you-know-who but even so, the final game could not have been easier as it was against Yokohama FC, a team already relegated with the lowest points total in J-League history. Yokohama won 1-0. The news filtered through to a disbelieving Kashima who were putting Shimizu S-Pulse to the sword at home. It was the first of a hat-trick of titles for the Antlers. For Urawa, it was the start of a downward spiral, the departure of stars and a sequence of finishes in the league of seventh, sixth and tenth. Just past the halfway stage of the current season, the Reds are in 12th. The cloak of mid-table invisibility has not yet been cast aside.
Gamba Osaka deservedly kept the trophy in Japan in 2008 but the Kansai club has not managed to repeat the success either in the J-League or in Asia. The following year, the Asian Champions League moved back to South Korea when Pohang Steelers became the first-ever club to win three continental titles (including the old-style Asian Champions Cup). It was a thrilling run to the final victory against Al Ittihad that included a quarter-final against Bunyodkor that will live long in the memory.
The Steelers unluckily lost 3-1 in Uzbekistan but came back at the Steelyard to take the second leg 4-1. Within weeks however, Bunyodkor had taken revenge by taking Pohang's strike pair of Denilson and Stevica Ristic. Fellow K-League clubs Suwon Bluewings and FC Seoul got in on the action and tempted Korea internationals Hwang Jae-won and Choi Hyo-jin north while worst of all, the Asian success led Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli to make coach Sergio Farias an offer that he told his employers he was going to refuse but then didn't. Pohang finished in the unfamiliar position of ninth in 2010.
The Asian crown stayed in Korea thanks to a Seongnam Ilhwa team that capped a series of impressive displays in the competition with a clinical triumph over Zob Ahan in Tokyo. It was another chapter in a proud history. Only fellow K-league team Pohang have won more Asian titles and no fellow K-League team has come close to their seven domestic crowns.
Within weeks however, Seongnam are in chaos. The AFC's decision in 2008 that from the following year the winners would not automatically qualify for the next edition (they previously had gone straight to the quarter-final stage) hit the club hard. It was, after all, Seongnam's battle for the Asian title that played a big part in them just missing out on qualification for the 2011 edition through the K-League.
Faced with a season of no continental adventures, some players, in a reflection of a similar trend in Europe, left for teams that could offer Champions League football. The biggest blow was the departure of Colombian wizard Mauricio Molina to K-league champions FC Seoul. The national team goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryeong headed for FA Cup holders Suwon Bluewings while unsung hero Jeon Kwang-jin went to China. Of the two big names that remained, captain and 2010 Asian Player of the Year Sasa Ognenovski has made no secret of his desire to leave with Seongnam refusing offers from China, Japan, UAE and Qatar, while injury kept striker Dzenan Radoncic out of action for the first five months of the season.
In truth, it is not only the lack of Asian action that is hurting as the owners of the club, once the richest in the country, are in cost-cutting mode. "We are now beggars," said highly-rated and outspoken coach Shin Tae-yong earlier in the season. Shin, a real coaching prospect in Asia is himself likely to leave at the end of the season. As it stands with the K-league almost two-thirds done, Seongnam are just one place off the bottom.
That night in Tokyo now feels like a long time ago but it is not just the winners that have often had trouble after lifting the trophy, others have suffered in their quests without even getting their hands on the prize. Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan spent millions on big-name players such as Rivaldo and big-name coaches such as 'Big' Phil Scolari in a bid for Asian domination. Winning the domestic prize wasn't enough - and after massive investment - it was the big one they wanted with Scolari keen for a tilt at the FIFA Club World Cup. It wasn't to be. The big bucks and the big names have left Tashkent while the big prize never arrived.
A few years ago, no clubs were larger in Asia than Tehran giants Persepolis and Esteghlal but as the years tick by without them making inroads on the continent, the prestige is starting to fade. With their history and support they are still able to lift Iranian titles but what really drives them on these days is desperation to show the rest of Asia that they are still forces to be reckoned with. The fact that in recent years smaller clubs from the country such as Sepahan and Zob Ahan have come much closer to the continental title is a major reason for the high turnover in coaches at the capital clubs who have a combined total of 16 tacticians in the past five years.
Over in Japan, Kashima Antlers are another domestic powerhouse that has come to see Asia as increasingly important but as that interest really started to rise in recent times, results at home have suffered. After three straight titles until 2009, 2010 brought a fourth-place finish while 2011 sees the J-League's most successful and, still, biggest club, in a scarcely believable relegation battle.
The Asian Champions League may make muggles of the best of teams but that just seems to make it all the more alluring which ensures that, unlike the stories of the mild-mannered magician from England, these tales from the east will be told anew for some time to come.