ACL championship battle pits teams from Iran, South Korea
Asia is a fast-moving place and the Asian Champions League is a fast-growing competition. The tournament has come a long way since 1967, when Israel's Hapoel Tel Aviv reigned. It has also come a long way since the format was revamped in 2003 to resemble its European big brother. There has been the occasional hiccup along the way, but the increase in prize money from $4 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2009 has all 32 entrants dreaming of continental success.
Thirty of those have fallen by the wayside on the road to Tokyo, where the final takes place Saturday. That leaves just Iran's Zob Ahan and South Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma left to battle for the trophy and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December at the opposite side of the continent. It is the sheer size of Asia that presents a whole host of challenges for the competition -- until the quarterfinal stage, the draw is split into eastern and western zones to save on travel time -- as Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed Bin Hammam told me last month, "we have night and day, summer and winter all at the same time in our confederation." As well the massive distances for teams to travel, there are massive differences in standards all over Asia and the Qatari has been a driving force behind using the competition as a tool to help professionalize the continental scene. When it comes to allocating Champions League places to the different leagues, UEFA's coefficients system does so by the performances of clubs on the field, the AFC focuses on what is happening, or not happening, off it.
In recent years, increasingly strict criteria, ranging from quality of leagues' marketing and average attendances to proximity of international airports, have been put in place that determine which countries are allowed automatic entry and just how many teams they can send. In 2009, the AFC evaluated each league, placing Japan first, Korea second (these two have won the past four tournaments), China third and Saudi Arabia fourth. This quartet, along with Iran, received four automatic spots with the rest shared between UAE, Uzbekistan, Australia, Indonesia and Qatar -- and that's it in 2010. Two places are reserved for play-off winners from the leagues just bubbling under the cut-off point such as Thailand, Syria, Vietnam and India. These so-called second-tier nations, and others, also get the chance to play in the competition culminating with the AFC Cup while hoping to do enough to one day gain annual admittance to the big boys club. It can be a double-edged sword. In the past, Southeast Asian clubs have been on the receiving end of many-a-thrashing by the Eastern giants, but standards are slowly rising in Indonesia and Thailand. These days even teams from Japan and Korea that travel to the region don't take victory for granted
Whether Zob Ahan have what it takes to get the victory over Seongnam to take the trophy back to West Asia for the first time since 2005 is another question, but the signs are the unheralded Iranians, owned by the state steel company, will be a tough nut to crack. There may be no stars in the lineup, but it has accounted for some serious names on the continent in the past few months. Uzbekistan moneybags Bunyodkor, complete with Luiz Felipe Scolari and Rivaldo, lost twice to Mansour Ebrahimzadeh's men in the group stage, the World Cup winning coach quit soon after. Zob Ahan then dumped out the defending champion Pohang Steelers of Korea in the last eight before defeating the highly-fancied Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, led by Frenchman Eric Gerets, 1-0 in both legs of the semifinal. That tactical triumph sums up the team and the wily Ebrahimzadeh, who was assistant at local rivals Sepahan when it reached and lost the 2007 final. "We have fast players in attack and midfield and we are good at counterattacking," the team's Brazilian striker Igor Castro told me when I caught up with him in Tokyo.
"Our strength is our organization and our discipline. We don't score many, but we must stick to the system that has got us to the final. The whole team defends." The facts support Igor, who also said he wouldn't mind a move to Korea. Goalkeeper Shahab Gordan has picked the ball out of the net just five times in 10 games, keeping seven clean sheets.
Seongnam, looking to become the third Korean winner in five years, is more vulnerable at the back, but has the offensive players to penetrate the Zob Ahan defense. The Yellows may not be owned by the state steel company, but do have owners with deeper pockets than most. The seven-time K-League champion and 1996 Asia winner doesn't flash the cash as it used to, but can still afford to lay out a few hundred thousand dollars for the likes of Mauricio Molina, the Colombian attacker has starred with seven goals so far and a number of assists, captain Sasa Ognenovski, who has earned a call-up to the Australian national team on the back of his continental performances and Montenegrin striker Dzenan Radoncic. The big targetman joins the lonely list of players like Keane, Ballack, Ribery and Blanc who missed out on finals for semi-inflicted punishments. "You get yellow cards from some silly situations and then you just blame yourself for the rest of your life," he lamented before leaving for Japan. Tokyo is a fine city for drowning sorrows as either Zob Ahan or Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma will find out Saturday evening.