The AFC Champions League may not be on the same level as its European equivalent, but the competition is growing at some pace.
A league of our own
Familiarity does not breed contempt in Asian football. As a competition that has clubs from Australia and Uzbekistan under its umbrella, the Asian Champions League covers vast areas. It is a tournament that similarly stretches itself in attempting to improve its standing in the grander tapestry of the world game. It may not carry the weight or significance of its wealthier brothers in the European Champions League, but it is hardly a pauper. The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) contribution to their continent's premier club competition cannot be said to be in terminal decline.
The teams participating in this season's group stages will rise from 28 to 32. The winners will snag a prize of US$1.5m (Dh5.5m), the losing finalists a cheque of $750,000. The Asian Champions League has existed in some form or another since the 1960s, but the AFC's decision to allow only clubs from professional leagues access to the tournament has probably assisted the UAE's new Pro League representatives.
Al Jazira, Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Sharjah can learn more from competing in the Champions League than they do in the parochial and, more often than not, tactically inept confines of the UAE. Al Wahda reached the last four of the tournament in 2007, but suffered some trying times in being ejected at its group stages last year. The Syrian side Al Karamah were a rousing lot to watch in their two matches with Wahda. Wahda journeyed to face Karamah in their opening match. They were beaten to a pulp in losing 4-1. The Abu Dhabi side won the return leg courtesy of Mohammed Al Shehhi's late goal, but the scale of such a crushing early defeat burned their ambitions.
Asian football has been responsible for a reawakening in the past. It has helped to revitalise the game at certain outposts. As one witnessed in Australia in 2005, it occasionally encourages a renaissance. A delight enveloped Australia when they were allowed to escape from the claustrophobia of the Oceania region to join Asia, a move that has heartened their national and club representatives. Some momentous coaches have been like intrepid football explorers in flaunting their nuances. The Chelsea and Russia coach Guus Hiddink oversaw the South Korea side that bore a path to the last four of the World Cup seven years ago.
Japan and South Korea were swooning over football before they hosted those 2002 finals. The success of such a tournament acted as a glue of good feeling among its people, a point the Fifa president Sepp Blatter noted when attending the announcement of the Asian Champions League's new format in Tokyo a few months ago. Japan's Gamba Osaka rode roughshod over Australia's Adelaide United in winning 5-0 on aggregate in the final of last season's event. Hiddink found himself coach of the Australian side that lost 1-0 to Italy in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.
The disappointment of such a defeat has dissipated when studying the attendances within the A-League in Australia, a country that was said to only have time for rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules football and cricket. Melbourne Victory last season enjoyed an average attendance of more than 24,000 - comparable to several top-level clubs in Europe. Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners will represent Australia in this year's group stages. In facing sides from Japan, China and Korea, they will broaden their horizons in every sense.