A new approach and a fresh format are needed if the continental competition is to compete with its more illustrious European cousin and win hearts and minds of Asian supporters.
Time for AFC to find a new path for flagging Champions League
The World Cup may be Fifa’s flagship tournament, but there is little doubt as to which competition has become football’s most-watched, most successful and most envied. The Uefa Champions League, contested every year, towers over all other competitions.
This is the golden age of European football, and Uefa today is recognised as the most successful of the world’s six continental federations.
With most of world football’s talent and money finding its way to Europe, Uefa’s leadership is keen to give back to the rest of the world.
Speaking at the Globe Soccer Conference yesterday, the Uefa vice president Senes Erzik spoke at length of the cooperation between his organisation and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), in particular.
In as session titled “Empowering the Future of Football”, he highlighted the links between the two federations and the extent to which Europe strives to export its expertise and resources to a continent that features over half the world’s population and 30 million registered footballers.
Erzik said Uefa supports the Asia Football Development Program and wants its initiatives to be “complimentary with what is going on with Fifa and AFC”.
He added: “Uefa has a duty to give back to the rest of the world.”
There is much to applaud in Uefa’s initiatives. But despite the best of intentions, not all European exports have been successful on these shores.
Never is that more obvious than in the lack of success of the AFC Champions League, very much the poor relation of continental competitions.
Since 2002/03, the AFC Champions League has employed a format similar to Uefa’s, while at the same time splitting the group stage into eastern and western zones. The division was deemed necessary to ease the costs and logistical difficulties of air travel.
The results, by and large, have been a major disappointment. Chronically low attendances, particularly in the west, have hardly been helped by system that leaves the same teams facing each other year after year, and many of the latter matches are dead rubbers.
Within that consistent pool of qualifiers, the groups show a depressing lack of variety, thanks to a complicated qualifying system that relies on many non-football criteria and restricts many nations from entering teams.
In the 2013 group stages, for example, three of the four West Asia Zone groups were made up of teams from the UAE, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The AFC leadership find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.
“Uefa has the wonderful Champions League,” said Hafez Al Medlej, the head of the AFC marketing committee. “This is a product we have tried to replicate in our choice of teams, venues and sponsors.”
Having provided such a direct comparison, the AFC can only watch as interest in Europe’s premier competition, and its domestic leagues, dwarves anything in Asia.
The truth is that most Asian football fans would rather watch Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund than Guangzhou Evergrande against FC Seoul.
Al Medlej also highlighted that the AFC Champions League is contested across a calendar year, and not on an August-to-May basis, to avoid conflict with the climaxes of the Uefa Champions League and the top domestic European leagues.
It is unlikely that this has had any positive impact on live attendances or television viewing. The shift only means that the conclusion of the AFC competition coincides with the still significantly more popular Uefa Champions League group stages. In any case, kick-off times for the two competitions rarely, if ever, overlap.
Perhaps more importantly, the current format causes massive disruptions and preparation issues for clubs with traditional winter seasons. For example, for a club from the UAE to go all the way to the AFC Champions League final requires a campaign across the latter half of one domestic season and the opening of another. The teams, and very often, coaches, who start the competition are rarely the ones who might end it.
The AFC Champions League’s problems run much deeper, and are affected by several sociopolitical factors. Following the European football model has not proven a panacea.
Ironically, the AFC would do well to copy the one aspect of the European model that it continues to resist; that is, a one-off final on a neutral ground. Aside from four years through 2012, the AFC Champions League final has been decided over two legs, depriving the competition of a showcase finale.
There is no quick fix for the AFC Champions League’s problems, or for Asian football’s. Copying the European model is no guarantee of success.
It is time for the AFC to find its own identity.
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