Thursday, November 5, 2009
Asian climax approaches
The European Champions League comes with its own kaleidoscope of memories; Di Stefano and Puskas at Hampden Park, Ajax and Total Football, Manchester United and the great escape at the Nou Camp, Liverpool and the Miracle of Istanbul.
For football aficionados, the Copa Libertadores evokes similar images; the consistency of Independiente, the cynicism of Estudiantes, the magic of Flamengo's 1981 side and the flair with which Carlos Bianchi's Boca Juniors won titles. Africa's Champions League is also nearly 50 years old, and the modern era has seen the north of the continent dominate to such an extent that this year's final, between Nigeria's Heartland and the Democratic Republic of Congo's TP Mazembe, is the first not to involve an Egyptian, Tunisian or Moroccan side since 1998.
What of Asia though, where the tournament dates back to 1967? When you think of the AFC Champions League, it's hard to summon up a single dominant side, one fit to compare with Real Madrid of the 1950s, El Zamalek of the 1980s, or even the Boca side of the early 2000s. Part of that has to do with the fragmented history of the event. Israel's Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv won the first two tournaments in 1967 and 1969, but given the pronounced lack of interest and the absence of professional leagues across the continent, the concept was abandoned in 1972. By the time it resumed in 1985-86, with South Korea's Daewoo Royals becoming the first winners from the Far East, the Israeli sides were playing in Europe.
It was only with the advent of professionalism in Japan and burgeoning football ambition in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East that the competition started to be taken seriously. There were some unlikely winners too in those days. When Fabio Capello's AC Milan were captivating the world in Athens, against a heavily-fancied Barcelona side, one of the most remarkable stories in sport was being written in South East Asia. The Thai Farmers' Bank Football Club was formed only in 1987, but playing in a home kit similar to Jock Stein's Lisbon Lions of Celtic, they won back-to-back Champions League trophies in 1994 and '95 before the Asian financial crisis put them out of business in 2000.
Since then though, the traditional powers - South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan - have dominated the competition, though when the Asian Club Championship finally metamorphosed into the Champions League in 2003, it was the United Arab Emirates' Al Ain that won it. Their coach was a maverick Frenchman who had stunned the country of his birth at the World Cup a year earlier. Fresh from his success with Senegal, Bruno Metsu went to the oil-rich league and pulled off a domestic and continental Double.
This Saturday's final will see history created, with either Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad or South Korea's Pohang Steelers poised to become the first club to win the trophy three times. With the West and East Asian teams kept apart till the quarter-finals, both sides have had to negotiate tricky passages to the final. Al-Ittihad, Saudi Arabia's oldest club, founded way back in 1927, topped an opening-round group that included Iran's Esteghlal, two-time winners of the competition, and Qatar's Umm-Salal. Once coached by the likes of Bob Houghton [of Malmo fame] and Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Al-Ittihad's current campaign has been masterminded by Gabriel Calderón, a team-mate of Diego Maradona in the Under-20 World Cup-winning side of 1979.
Calderón can even call upon one of his compatriots, Luciano Leguizamón, whose itinerant career has taken him to several clubs including River Plate. The team's greatest strength though has been in sharing the goals around. The Moroccan, Hicham Aboucherouane, is the team's leading scorer in the competition with five goals, and both he and his countryman, Amine Chermiti [on loan from Hertha Berlin] were on the scoresheet as Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor Tashkent were blown away 4-0 in the second leg of the quarter-final.
In the semi-final, they faced Nagoya Grampus Eight, the team that had been the last stop in Gary Lineker's distinguished career. Nagoya had put out Kawasaki Frontale, themselves conquerors of Gamba Osaka, the defending champions, but again Al-Ittihad were far too strong on home turf in Jeddah. The Japanese led 2-1 at half-time but a second-half hat-trick from Mohammed Noor, capped 74 times by his country, allied to an injury-time effort from Chermiti, gave the Saudis a 6-2 win. And though Keita Sugimoto scored one of the goals of the season in the second leg, an astonishing overhead kick from an acute angle, Al-Ittihad were already 2-0 up and in cruise control. It finished 8-3 on aggregate, with Japanese dreams of a hat-trick of titles - Urawa Red Diamonds had won in 2007 - trampled into the Mizuho Stadium turf.
The Steelers will provide stern opposition though. Having thrashed the Newcastle Jets [Australia] 6-0 in the round of 16, they faced their moment of truth against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor. Coached by Big Phil Scolari and featuring the fading talent of Rivaldo, the Uzbeks were 3-1 winners in the first leg. But with their own Brazilian, Denilson - not the aimless dribbler of 1990s vintage - in sparkling form, the Koreans led 3-0 and had the last four in their sights when Victor Karpenko popped up in the 89th minute to take the game to extra-time. Another import, Macedonia's Stevica Risti clinched it in the 12th minute of extra-time, and he was on target in Qatar as well as Umm-Salal were brushed aside with an authoritative and disciplined performance in the semi-finals.
The last time Al-Ittihad won the competition in 2005, they had a loan star to thank. The Sierra Leone icon, Mohamed Kallon, had arrived there after a falling-out with Didier Deschamps at Monaco and his six goals were instrumental in the Saudis going all the way. Neither they or the Steelers have lost an AFC Champions League final, so something has to give come Saturday night in Tokyo. With a game that mirrors that of the national side, the Koreans will be hard to beat, but something tells me that it will be Al-Ittihad, whose ambitious plan to sign Luis Figo a couple of seasons ago never worked out, that will edge this clash of football styles. One thing's for sure: with the likes of Scolari following the new-money trail, Asia's Champions League may not be an impoverished cousin much longer.