Curing what ails the Asian Champions League

by Ashley Morrison on May 31, 2011

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With the European Champions League Final being played out between the Champions of Spain and the England, it had me thinking about the Asian Champions League, its meaning to football fans in this region, and its impact.

In its current format the AFC Champions League has only been in existence since 2002 when the Asian Champions Cup, Asian Cup Winners Cup, and Asian Super Cup were merged. It did not get off to the best of starts with the 2003/04 tournament being cancelled due to SARS.

Prior to the AFC Champions League there was the Asian Champion Club Tournament which started back in 1967, and saw eight domestic champions from eight Asian leagues compete in the inaugural season.

The European Cup or Champions League as it is now known started back in 1955, The Copa Libertadores in South America started in 1960. These competitions have the benefit of time on their side, and with time has come both history and meaning. They also have clubs with great histories behind them competing in their tournaments, something the Asian Competition does not yet have due to its infancy. The histories of these tournaments, the teams and players that have lifted the trophy over time have given both credibility.

The AFC Champions league currently lacks that history and meaning.

For a start, the footballing public in the region knows very little about the leagues in other countries, whereas in Europe fans in Italy, Spain Germany and England all keep an eye on the other European leagues. If this tournament is to move ahead and fulfill its potential, the football fans in Asia need to be educated. Most fans would, if asked, know a little about the Japanese J- league and the Korean K-League, but outside of that their knowledge would be limited.

Which raises the question is the tournament structured correctly? Currently it is contested by the top thirty-two clubs from the top 10 Asian leagues, two of which must qualify through the playoffs.
The AFC opted to follow their European counterparts and have a tournament that in fact is not restricted to Champions alone. The European Champions League increased the number of teams participating because they saw the dollar signs, believing that if more games were played that meant more television viewers, more spectators and ultimately more revenue. However figures released by the relevant bodies have shown that viewing figures and actual match attendances in the early group stages of the Champions League have actually been poor and these only pick up markedly when the tournament moves into phase two.

To establish the tournament in Asia would it not have been better to start off by restricting entry to just those teams who were in fact Champions in their home leagues? Forgetting the curly question in Australia as to who is the rightful champion, the league winners or the Grand Final winners.

The fact that teams who are not the best in their country are competing does take something away from the tournament. In Australia it has also put the A-League clubs under immense financial pressure. The Central Coast Mariners are claiming it will be a financial burden for them to play in next year’s AFC Champions League.

The European Cup, as it was called, started off as a straight knock out competition. Teams were drawn out of a hat and then played home and away. Again surely as this competition tries to gain traction this would have more appeal to fans and clubs in the region, than the current pool set up?

Will the AFC see sense and restructure it, or will they blindly follow the path that has been set even if it is hurting many of the clubs participating?