Monday, February 28, 2011
All to play for
As the world discovered on December 2, Mohamed Bin Hammam, president of the AFC, usually gets his way. By the time his baby, the 2022 World Cup is born, the Qatari wants to see its older brother, the Asian Champions League, all grown-up and rivalling UEFA's pride and joy. It is a lofty target but, despite a few growing pains, the tournament is starting to blossom. The 2011 version kicks off on March 1 with 32 teams from far and wide chasing the trophy, over $2 million in prize money and a place in FIFA's Club World Cup.
It may sound like a straightforward club competition but, this being Asia, it is anything but. When you have a confederation of 46 nations spreading from Saudi Arabia to Australia and encompassing the likes of India, China, Guam, Mongolia and Bhutan as well as the traditional giants of Japan, South Korea and Iran, you have a fairly mixed bag when it comes to standards on the pitch.
Off it, the sheer distances involved and the multitude of schedules complicate any attempt to organise a continent-wide competition. The AFC does a decent job, however, and the Asian Champions League is its most visible and effective tool - both stick and carrot - to try to both encourage and cajole member nations to strive for improvement. As UEFA hands out Champions League spots based on coefficients made up of points earned by past performances in Europe, the AFC takes a different path. Whether a league can participate at all and, if it can, how many teams it can send all depend on off-the-pitch standards judged on such criteria as average attendances, proximity of international airports and standards of a league's marketing.
Only ten leagues have automatic representation, with Japan, South Korea, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia boasting the complete quartet. The rest are divided between Australia, Uzbekistan, UAE, Qatar and Indonesia. Teams from the last three of that quintet as well as Thailand and India have the chance to play off for the two remaining spots, as do the winners of the second-tier AFC Cup.
The 32 that make it are split into eight groups divided between West/Central Asia and East/South-East Asia and Australia. It isn't until the quarter-finals that the two sides come into contact. Even prior to that - and journeys from provincial East Asian cities to their western equivalents can top 30 hours - trips can be lengthy. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United with an 11-hour flight for a midweek match to return home not much more than 48 hours before starting the domestic season with a game at Liverpool. That is the fate of Suwon Bluewings of South Korea, who have to head to Sydney and then return for a match with bitter rivals Seoul.
Such is life in the Asian Champions League and, despite the travel, it is a competition that players are increasingly loath to miss out on. Defending champions Seongnam Ilhwa of South Korea will do just that after failing to qualify for the 2011 version mainly because the team were busy defeating Zob Ahan 3-1 in the Tokyo final last November. There was no Liverpool-like reprieve handed down from the AFC, though even the Korean media didn't seem too bothered.
The same can't be said for Australia international Sasa Ognenovski, the man who lifted the trophy. "I think we should get another chance," the defender told ESPNsoccernet. "Any team that wins a major tournament should be able to defend that title but I don't make the rules."
Ognenovski reached the final with Adelaide United in 2008 and, after going one better two years later, he knows more than most how to succeed in the Asian Champions League.
"We played our strongest XI as much as possible in every competition and we had a strong team. We were lucky with injuries because if you go to places like Saudi Arabia without a couple of your top players then you are going to have a very difficult time. We approached every game with confidence."
The winners are likely to come from the usual suspects. Since 2006, Japan and South Korea have dominated. As the teams showed at the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Asian Cup, they are setting new standards on the continent. Kashima Antlers are especially keen to win a first Asian title after seven domestic triumphs, while Nagoya Grampus followed their semi-final appearance in 2009 by winning a first J-League title in 2010.
Dragan Stojkovic would become the hottest coaching property in Asia if he were to win this title. He already told this site last November that he wouldn't mind a crack at Arsenal, and Wenger himself, his former coach, has mentioned the Serbian as a possible successor.
"We learned a lot from our past experience in the competition in 2009 when we reached the semi-final," Stojkovic said. "Our target is to win it this time and I believe that we have the players to do that."
Gamba Osaka have stuttered a little since winning the 2008 tournament. City rivals Cerezo make their first appearance.
Korea is looking for an amazing tenth triumph. Seongnam may be out of the running, but FC Seoul and Jeju United are looking to make an impact on the competition for the first time, while Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors want to make it three and two respectively. The tournament is big in China, with the domestic football scene always in search of good news. Last year was a disaster: nine Sino-Korean meetings brought nine defeats for the Middle Kingdom. "We are a points ATM for Korea," one prominent blogger lamented.
It is also a big event for Australia. Since Adelaide United reached the final back in 2008, A-League clubs have struggled. Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC have a big job. "We are ambassadors for Australian football in Asia," Sydney coach Vitezslav Lavicka told this reporter. "It will be a great experience for all of us and we want to show Asia that there are some good players playing in Australia now and that we play good football. We always have a goal to win everything."
The last time a team from the western edges of the continent won the trophy was back in 2005. Since then, time and tournaments have not been kind: the World Cup was an East Asian/Australian affair, as was the 2011 Asian Cup, despite the fact that it took place in Qatar. A triumph in the Asian Champions League wouldn't redress the balance but would at least stop the rot.
Al Ittihad, the last team from the region to wear the crown, are contenders, as are Saudi Arabian rivals Al Hilal. Football in the Kingdom has been struggling of late but these two genuine continental powerhouses have the talent and the resources to go far.
Of the Iranian quartet, Zob Ahan may have lost the final to Seongnam but, unlike their conquerors, are back in it this time around. The problem is that they were a surprise package in 2010 and may struggle without that advantage this year. It really is time, however, that Tehran titans Esteghlal and Persepolis did something to remind Asia that they are probably the biggest two teams on the continent.
Al Ain won the title back in 2003 and are one of UAE's four representatives. Qatar has three but it is some time since either made an impact on the competition and the odds don't look good for 2011.
Uzbekistan clubs, like the national team, usually make it past the first stage but struggle in the latter stages. Odil Ahmedov was Uzbekistan's star player at the Asian Cup and has just left Pakhtakor to join Russian Premier League team Anzhi Makhachkala. He still has high hopes for his old club.
"Uzbek clubs are participating successfully in the Asian Champions League," he told ESPNsoccernet last month just before he departed for Russia. "Our clubs are participating successfully in the Asian Champions League. Sure, we haven't won the competition yet, but I am sure that we will. I hope my former team-mates can go far in the Asian Champions League. The young players at the club will have a chance to show what they can do."
As do all 32 teams. It should be another year to remember.