x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Asian Champions League: A continent drifting apart

Al Ain, Al Jazira, Al Nasr and Al Shabab representing the UAE, but many fans would struggle to name more than a handful of other teams taking part in the Asian Champions League.

Omar Abdulrahman, centre, will be in Asian Champions League action tomorrow with his Al Ain teammates Jires Kembo-Ekoko, second left, and Asamoah Gyan, right, against Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.
Omar Abdulrahman, centre, will be in Asian Champions League action tomorrow with his Al Ain teammates Jires Kembo-Ekoko, second left, and Asamoah Gyan, right, against Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.

When AC Milan hosted Barcelona last week, the world stopped to watch. Seven days earlier, Manchester United's clash with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu was a show stopper.

The Uefa Champions League has replaced the World Cup as football's - and probably sport's - most popular competition.

South America's Copa Libertadores and Africa's Champions League, while lacking the glamour of their European equivalent, are still formidable competitions and proving grounds for some of the world's best individual talent.

The Asian Champions League (ACL), however, remains very much the ugly sister.

As the UAE's four representatives - Al Ain, Al Jazira, Al Shabab and Al Nasr - prepare to kick off their group stage matches, starting today, it continues to be a competition without a true identity.

The concept of "Champions of Asia", incredibly considering the size of the continent, remains an alien one to most football fans. Indeed the average fan might struggle to name more than a handful of teams in the competition.

And, perhaps even more damning, the football watching public in Asia often shows barely any interest.

In short, the competition's troubles can be summed up in two words. Commercialism and glamour. Or lack of.

In a broader sense, Asia's sheer vastness and the socio-political and economic baggage that comes with that could explain the apathy towards this competition, and more generally, the poor standard of football played across the world's largest continent.

China, with aspirations to become a football superpower, is as far away from such lofty heights as it has ever been. With a population of 1.3 billion, it has only qualified for the World Cup on one occasion (2002) and is currently ranked 96 in the world. Far worse, the domestic game is mired in corruption and violence and the number of registered professionals is an astonishingly low 7,000.

Yet they have four teams entered in the eastern side of the draw. In eastern Asia, only Japan and South Korea have excelled, and it is no surprise that as their clubs dominate the Champions League, it is exports from the two countries that have made an impact on the top European leagues.

Australia (one) and Thailand (two) are the only other countries from the east with teams in the ACL. Bunyodkor from Uzebkistan have also been placed in the eastern side of the draw.

India and Pakistan, the world's second and sixth most populous nations, meanwhile, are nothing more than footballing "no-fly zones".

Countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam are non-entities. Malaysia, home of the Asian Football Confederation, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, judging by recent allegations, seem to be fertile ground to the crippling combination of substandard football and match-fixing culture.

Closer to home, the Middle East, or western Asia, is a curious mix of affluent Arabian Gulf clubs with small fan bases, and poorer but passionately-supported Levant ones.

Only Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan break up the monotonous pattern of groups made up of one team from the UAE, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain and Oman, all good teams at international level, are not allowed to enter teams in the ACL until their domestic leagues meet certain criteria.

It is hardly exciting to be facing the same teams every year.

The Asian public's obsession with European football plays a significant part in perpetuating apathy towards domestic leagues and, subsequently, the ACL.

Barcelona and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium lives long in the memory. But who remembers Seongnam Ilhwa Chumna against Zob Ahan FC at the National Stadium in Tokyo?

Sadly, there is no magic remedy.

One mooted idea is to split Asian football into two east and west confederations, a concept inadvertently supported by the AFC Champions League's current group stage format.

But while that might streamline fixtures, facilitate travel and potentially bring about more commercial investment, it would also conceivably promote isolationism among the blocs.

Today, the Champions League restarts. The Emirati contingent will have to overcome almost exclusively Iranian, Saudi and Qatari opposition to progress to the knockout stages.

The national team showed how exciting that can be with last month's glorious Gulf Cup win.

How long the GCC clubs continue to face each other before the novelty wears off is another matter entirely.



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