November 08, 2012

This week has shown once again that while democracy is by no means a perfect political system, it is the best there is. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is still searching for the best way to run its major event, the Asian Champions League. With the vast distances and differences on the world's biggest continent, it is not an easy task.

The organizers will be in South Korea this weekend to see whether local team Ulsan Horangi or Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia will take the 2012 title. Monterrey of Mexico may also send a representative as the CONCACAF champion will take on the winner at FIFA's Club World Cup next month for the right to face Chelsea.

Even the final of the tournament, which is organized along the lines of the European version, demonstrates some of the challenges that the AFC faces. The confederation has tried all formats. There have been two legs (lacking the final feeling, meaning midweek matches and the straining of schedules), neutral venues (a big risk as 2002 demonstrated when two Korean teams situated 10 miles apart spent over 18 hours traveling to Tehran) and the current system, a one-off match at the home of one of the finalists. Not quite fair, perhaps, but one that can provide the necessary atmosphere.

Getting to the final involves some serious air miles, even in the group stage when the 32 teams are divided into two halves of 16, based in the east and west of Asia. The eastern half of the draw contains teams from Uzbekistan and Australia, roughly eight hours west and 10 hours south of Tokyo. With games squeezed in between league commitments on the weekend, it is a tough schedule. No wonder then that after winning the 2007 tournament, an exhausted Urawa Reds, 10 points clear at the top of the J-League with five games left, ended up finishing second.

At the quarterfinal stage, the draw is thrown open and anyone can play anyone from Tehran to Tashkent to Tokyo. While splitting the tournament in two for the majority of the tournament is practical, it does give the sense of two separate competitions taking place at the same time. Few in one half of the draw care about what happens in the other. Then at the quarterfinal stage, they are suddenly thrown together and expected to develop a relationship.

This is the major hurdle that the Asian Champions League faces -- turning Asian soccer fans into fans of Asian soccer.

All countries naturally view the competition through their individual national prisms. China and Iran tend to be the most enthusiastic participants, the Koreans the most indifferent -- ironically so as K-League teams are easily the most successful -- with the others at varying points in between. There are soccer, cultural and sometimes historical reasons for the differing attitudes, but little is done to promote the tournament and tailor it to the needs of individual markets.

At the same time as increasing enthusiasm and engagement in local markets, it is vital to build the competition outside narrow national interests in an attempt to develop the parochial into the popular. AFC officials point to the strides taken by the tournament over the years, and it has become considerably more professional and lucrative, and the similarities to the European version, but there is one aspect in which Asia lags: generating interest outside of national allegiances.

That is evident even in the final. Despite the various formats over the years, one aspect remains unchanged. Rare is it to find a journalist in the press box not from one of the two participating nations. Instead of paying for writers from all over Asia to attend its annual award ceremony in Kuala Lumpur later this month, perhaps the AFC should help cover costs for more Asian media, especially those from poorer countries, to attend the final.

At a fundamental level, the organization sees the primary role of the Champions League less as a tournament to engage and excite fans around the continent and provide an annual unifying experience but as a tool designed to help raise standards around a massive continent. Images of a Vietnamese team spending their time sightseeing in Japan in the hours leading up to a 15-0 thrashing in 2006 have been seared in the collective memory.

Unlike UEFA, which awards points to countries for on-field success, the AFC grades on off-the-field performance. Leagues are rated for the stadia, marketing, transport, attendances and a whole host of other criteria. The better you score, the more slots you get. In 2012, only 10 members of the 47 in the AFC had automatic representation with a handful of others given playoff opportunities.

The theory is that setting the entrance bar high acts as an incentive to improve infrastructure and standards to the ultimate benefit of all, and there are programs in place to help some of the weaker nations improve as well as a second-tier AFC Cup for "developing nations." It has not been unsuccessful, though Asian soccer has also been improving of its own accord at the top level, but the problem is that three quarters of the continent are left excluded, and the whole tournament is diminished as a result. Qatar, a country of less than two million people -- many of which prefer cricket -- received four automatic spots in the 2012 group stage. Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million soccer-crazy supporters, had one.

Jordan can beat Australia, and Lebanon defeated South Korea in qualification for the World Cup to send shockwaves and excitement around the continent, but their clubs, no matter how professional individual teams may be, are not afforded the same chance.

Sterility and predictability are setting in. The Asian Champions League needs to open the door and let in some fresh air. Where necessary, off-the-field performance criteria can be sacrificed in the short term for greater excitement, engagement and relevance. For the competition to prosper, it has to expand and become less about the signage on a stadium but the fans inside it. Making the Asian Champions League a genuine local, regional, continental and global event is a long and difficult journey, but at the moment, the AFC needs to get on the right road.

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