It really is the dawn of a new era in Dubai on Wednesday as the AFC Champions League draw is conducted for the 2009 competition.
Competition sees major upheaval
It really is the dawn of a new era in Dubai on Wednesday as the AFC Champions League draw is conducted for the 2009 competition. A new logo is far from the only difference. The format has changed, as has the prize money. As the global economy continues along its major downswing, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) are confident that this new and improved competition can really start making an impact in and also out of the giant continent.
It is all part of the process of putting the Asian competition in a position to become the clear number two among the world's continental club competitions. At the moment, even in Asia, when people say the Champions League, nine times out of 10, they are talking about the European version. It will take time but the AFC are optimistic that such a ratio will start to fall when the changes take effect.
Gone is the slightly awkward 28-team format with the champions receiving a bye into the knockout stage to join the seven qualifiers - now the holders are no longer guaranteed a place in the competition at all. The 2008 winners Gamba Osaka almost did not make it, booking a place only by winning the Japanese cup. The J-League club are just one of 32 hopefuls. These will be split into eight groups of four with the top two - rather than just the winners - heading into knockout stage.
In the past, the region's larger clubs were often caught in two minds as to whether the $600,000 (Dh2.2m) on offer in prize money for the winners was really worth all that travel and trouble. Famously, or perhaps infamously, in 2006, the South Korean club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors tried to withdraw mid-competition in a bid to cut down on costs. The fine for withdrawal was greater than the costs incurred. Jeonbuk stayed and then went on to win the competition.
These days, however, the runners-up receive $750,000 while the lucky winners collect double that - an amount not to be sneezed at in Asian terms at especially as the trophy is also a key that opens the door to Fifa's Club World Cup which will also take place in UAE at the end of this year. The new-look Asian Champions League is not only bigger, the AFC are sure that it is now better. The governing body evaluated, rated and ranked all Asia's leagues according to a list of various criteria. Only Japan received an 'A', South Korea was second but only managed a 'B'.
These two powerhouses of Asian football, along with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia also have four representatives in the competition. As part of the AFC's push to raise standards in parts of the continent that have been lagging, there are now strict entry requirements for all leagues to meet. These range from providing information on financial dealings to being located within reasonable distance of an airport.
"We had to implement tough measures to ensure that the clubs and leagues they represented are truly professional in the way they are run and play football," the AFC chief Mohammed Bin Hamman said when announcing the new format. "This is the only way to build up the credibility of this tournament. At the end of the day, Asian football benefits and we are delighted to see that so many associations and clubs are doing their best to meet our competition criteria. This is an exciting time in Asian football and we are looking forward to a fantastic competition in 2009."