Friday, October 2, 2009
Watching little Brother Asia
Here is an interesting question for you: given the chance to watch either the Asian Champions League, or its somewhat more illustrious and glamorous elder brother from Europe, which one would you opt for?
I am no statistician, but I would say at least eight out of ten ESPN readers would opt for the latter. Not that I am blaming anyone for following the wildly entertaining tussle to see who will succeed Barcelona. But the question is a valid one, even in the Asian continent itself.
European leagues have a huge following on this continent - bigger certainly than some of the domestic leagues - and any channel which secures viewing rights of the Champions League is sure to make a small fortune.
I remember walking into a satellite shop in Doha and haggling for the price of the channel that would broadcast the European Champions League semi-final later that night. Behind me a very nice Arab man in his white dish-dash tapped me on the shoulder and said: "I am here for the same channel." We had a nice football moment there.
Enough of the misty-eyed nostalgia. The interesting question is whether the Asian Champions League can inspire the same kind of magic moments in satellite shops. Certainly the Asian Football Confederation has made a real effort to bring about improvements.
The reshaping of the Asian Champions League this year was clearly aimed at bringing about a quantum leap in the professionalism of participating clubs. Having observed the scramble of countries to meet strict deadlines by the cut-off date to make sure they were granted entry places, I believe the measures have had at least a mental "wake up" effect.
The Asian Champions League obviously has some way to go before reaching the astonishing levels of success of its European counterpart, and only by realising the short-comings can the process of improvement get underway.
When AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam launched the Vision Asia project in September 2002, he called on Asian nations to develop football at a grassroots level and display the region's confidence in its own young players and its own potential to make an impact in world football. The ultimate aim of the program is to produce a World Cup winner from Asia. In the short term, it is helping to raise the level of the continent's premier club competition.
The one advantage that Asia has over Europe is that its competition is at a more advanced stage: this week saw the completion of some fascinating quarter-final ties.
Take the case of Luis Felipe Scolari's Bunyodkor side being 3-1 up after a thrilling first leg last week in Uzbekistan. Fast forward to a week later and the tie was suddenly turned upside down as the delightfully named Pohang Steelers produced their own 3-1 victory and then snatched an extra time winner to put the Brazilian World Cup winning coach out of the competition in his first year in Asia.
If that is not enough for thrilling comebacks, Umm Salal put up a stunning fight-back in their first leg tie on home soil in Qatar last week. Trailing 2-0 at half-time against visiting FC Seoul, who preferred a somewhat more traditional choice of name, the Qatari side turned on the style with three goals from Brazilian born players Magno Alves and Fabio Cesar to take a slender 3-2 lead to Korea. It turned out to be enough in a gritty, hard fought game that ended in a 1-1 draw, providing the upset of the quarter-finals.
Umm Salal will now face the Steelers of Pohang for a place in the final in Tokyo on November 9 - a city to rival the equally impressive Madrid for hosting the showpiece of the European equivalent next May.
In the other half of the draw, a Japanese team by the exotic name of Nagoya Grampus will face Saudi side Al Ittihad as they attempt to make it a home triumph that Real Madrid is also so desperately looking for.
These quarter-final ties certainly lacked nothing in excitement and spectacular goals, and it could be an advantage that the smaller brother from Asia is at a more advanced stage. In a theory of football relativity, that enhances the chances of more viewers tuning in to the Asian Champions League when the semi-finals begin next month.