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ACL needs a new forumla

by Michael Huguenin on Dec 13, 2011

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What a bad week for football in Manchester.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United were dumped from the UEFA Champions League (UCL) last Thursday morning (AEDT) despite currently leading the rest of the English Premier League (EPL).

Yep, that’s right, the EPL – the league that’s well out in front on UEFA’s association coefficient table, which decides how many spots each league gets in European club competitions.

But this blog isn’t about how City’s players are still inexperienced in the Champions League or about how the Red Devils desperately need a decent central midfielder. This blog is about the good news story of this season’s UCL and why, to our detriment, a similar situation would never occur in the Asian Champions League (ACL).

APOEL Nicosia has been a breath of fresh air in the group stage of the 2011/12 UCL. The champions of Cyprus finished top of Group G ahead of Zenit St. Petersburg, FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. In fact, the Cypriot club wrapped up qualification to the next round with a game to spare.

APOEL has sent European journalists rushing to the Internet in the hope of learning a bit about the players who have stunned three recent winners of the Europa League/UEFA Cup. With respect to the two Manchester clubs, their failure is a sideshow to APOEL’s progression to the knockout stages of the UCL.

The ACL, in comparison, seems way too predictable. Reading Ben Somerford’s comprehensive review  of the opposition clubs Australia’s three representatives will face in the 2012 ACL, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Am I the only one getting a little sick of watching Aussie clubs take on Japanese, Korean and Chinese clubs year in, year out? Only Adelaide United breaks that theme slightly by replacing a Chinese club with Bunyodkor from Uzbekistan.

Despite the glee with which most Australian football supporters reacted to the news that the A-League had won a third spot in the ACL (albeit just to the play offs), I don’t think this is a good thing for Asia’s main continental club competition. The ACL needs more variety and I believe the solution is to scrap the ACL’s unpopular little brother, the AFC Cup.

Adelaide United’s response to the news that they would have to win a play off to compete in the ACL was subdued. Of course, the Reds wanted another tilt against Asia’s top clubs but the prospect of the AFC Cup booby prize forced them to admit that they would consider pulling out. Lucky for Adelaide, which is in terrible form, as pointed out by Sebastian Hassett in his latest blog, Persipura Jayapura were disqualified for playing in the breakaway Indonesian Super League and Chinese club Liaoning Whowin pulled out to avoid the aforementioned possibility of an AFC Cup berth. The Reds qualified by default.

But who can blame Liaoning Whowin or Adelaide United for being reluctant to play in the AFC Cup? The travel costs involved in playing continental club competitions in Asia are huge and there’s very little money to be made from playing in Asia’s second-tier club competition.

Clubs involved in the AFC Cup receive a US$20,000 travel subsidy for every away match (US$10,000 less than in the group stage of the ACL). When you factor in that an official delegation can include up to 29 players and officials, that’s less than US$700 per person. Try to fly return to anywhere in Asia for much less than that. Plus, there’s only prize money to the champion and runner-up. So at best, clubs might break even in the AFC Cup.

What would be better is to merge Asia’s two continental club competitions and allocate a handful of spots in the group stage to champions of lesser leagues.

In Europe, APOEL Nicosia, and other league champions from lesser competitions, have a greater chance of reaching the UCL group stage now, than they did a few years ago. Before the 2009/10 UCL, UEFA president Michel Platini changed how qualification spots were allocated. Firstly, the reigning champion plus 21 clubs from the top 13 leagues in Europe would qualify automatically to the UCL. More successful leagues (such as the EPL) received more spots than less successful leagues (i.e. the Dutch Eredivisie).

The remaining ten spots were split down the middle. Five spots would be reserved for lesser league champions. The other five spots would be up for grabs by teams that finished second, third or fourth in their respective leagues. Two systems of playoffs (known as the Champions Route and League Route) would decide which teams earned a spot in the UCL group stage. For example, APOEL, in the Champions Route, beat the title winners of Albania, Slovakia and Poland on the way to this season’s group stage. This means that every year over half of clubs in the UCL group stage will be league champions because smaller champions won’t be eliminated by the likes of Arsenal or Villarreal.

To create a similar system in Asia would require taking some automatic spots away from certain leagues but to be honest, four automatic spots to the Japanese and Qatari leagues seems over the top. Plus, the likes of China and the UAE having three, as well as one play-off spot, is way too many for two leagues that have rarely had a club in the quarterfinals in the last five years. These changes could be offset by extra play off spots through the League Route. A system where each half of the AFC had twelve automatic spots plus two spots each allocated to a Champions Route and a League Route would presumably keep the big countries happy, while providing more opportunities for smaller league champions to be involved.

The benefits would be extensive. The AFC could combine prize money and travel subsidies to create a more financially attractive tournament for the clubs involved. The media and fans would get a competition that showcases the best Asian clubs from all across the confederation. TV rights could be potentially sold at higher prices and to more locations because more countries would be involved. Prize money would trickle down into lesser leagues and to smaller clubs, instead of being retained in the big leagues of Asia.

Of course, there would be some big scores from time to time (just like Lyon’s 7-1 victory of Dynamo Zagreb this week in the UCL) but that’s football. Continental club competitions are about seeing the best against the best but watching A-League clubs take on the same opposition each year is dull (not to mention tough). It’s time for the AFC to shake things up and scrapping the AFC Cup would be a good start.