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AFC Champions League – Asia plans reform for the future

Asian football is currently embarking upon a new challenge: the reform of the AFC Champions League and professional leagues across the region. Preparations have already begun with an eye to launching a new AFC Champions League in February 2009.
The AFC Champions League is Asia’s top club competition. When it was launched in 2002, its objective was to bring together the region’s previous major competitions at club level: the Asian Club Championship, the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and the Asian Super Cup. The AFC had hoped to make its Champions League as popular as the UEFA Champions League, yet the reality has been different.
The standard of teams involved in this annual competition, which usually features 28 or 29 clubs from a dozen or more countries across Asia, has varied considerably and this has led to some lopsided games, such as J. League club Gamba Osaka’s 15-0 win over Vietnamese side Da Nang last year. There have also been a number of last-minute withdrawals and disqualifications.
While the prize money for the winners is currently USD 500,000, this appears less impressive when you consider the hard schedule and long journeys teams have to contend with. Moreover, games are often played inhalf-empty stadiums and media coverage is sometimes limited.
With these problems in mind, AFC president Mohammed bin Hammam recently decided to revamp the Champions League and professional leagues in the region. It is hoped that having a solid professional league in each country and providing teams with the opportunity to play in a competitive tournament will have a synergising effect that will ultimately improve the standard of football across Asia.
Bin Hammam asked JFA president and former J.League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi to help out with the initiative and appointed him chairman of the AFC professional league ad-hoc committee. The JFA was consequently appointed as the secretariat for the project. Bin Hammam says the time has come for a new approach in Asia.
“Vision Asia has established the base of football in Asia over the last six to seven years and this now has to be reflected at the top level. The professional league is a requirement not only for what exists in the market – TV, advertisements and sponsors – but also for a new generation [of players].”
The AFC president continued, “The JFA has raised the level of Japanese football from where it was 15 years ago to where it is today and now I am anticipating the JFA passing on their experience to their fellow Asians. More than 50 per cent of football in Asia resembles that of Japan 15 to 16 years ago. I remember that everybody used to dream of meeting Japan in qualification matches. But nobody wishes that today. Through dedication, and the vision and will to change, they have seen a lot of things change.”
To make the project successful, the professional league committee has set ambitious criteria for the participating associations in the belief that a professional league formed upon solid organisational foundations will achieve solid results, just as the J.League has done. “We have no intention of lowering the criteria,” says Kawabuchi. “The standard of the game can be raised with the support of strong organisation [in each association].”
The requirements include establishing a league as a legal entity, employing licensed coaches, having a certain number of professional players per club, having good stadiums and training facilities, and building strong youth development structures. “We have made a lot of progress in terms of setting up the criteria for the participating countries and clubs,” said Bin Hammam. “This has been the focus so far, and is a very important stage in the overall process.”
He also added that the new FIFA club licensing regulations, which are set to come into force in January 2008, “will greatly assist our efforts and contribute towards evolving national associations’ and clubs’ attitudes towards progress.”
Asian countries vary in culture, economic situation and religion, and it is important for the committee to assess the current state of each league and association through on-site inspections, which started in April, and subsequently seek solutions together.
A two-man inspection team headed by the committee’s deputy chairman, Tokuaki Suzuki, has visited nine associations already, namely Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, China, Korea Republic, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. They will visit 12 more associations by November – Vietnam, Australia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Thailand and India. The only candidate for involvement in the project that will not be visited is Iraq due to the current precarious situation in the country.
These 22 nominees – 14 associations whose clubs played in this year’s AFC Champions League plus eight others with considerable potential – have been carefully selected based on the results and analysis of an initial survey completed by all 46 AFC member associations.
The visits conducted so far have made the committee aware that some associations have already seen changes. UAE and Qatar, for instance, have formed special committees to work on their reform projects in an attempt to meet the criteria and win a spot in the new AFC Champions League. The AFC committee has welcomed this positive attitude.
“Thanks to the Champions League’s link with the FIFA Club World Cup, the initial objective of the Asian clubs has been clarified, and we’ve seen some changes in our J.League clubs this season,” noted Kawabuchi.
This year, Urawa Reds, for example, saw 44,793 fans attend their game against Sydney FC on 23 May, the biggest attendance recorded by a J.League club in the tournament. Reds later qualified for the quarter-finals, as did their J.League rivals Kawasaki Frontale.
The budget for 2009-2012 has been secured thanks to the AFC’s marketing contract with the World Sport Croup, but Kawabuchi said more work needs to be done to make Asia’s elite club competition more attractive so that it can draw lucrative TV rights offers and find other sources of revenue from across the region. That, the Japanese official added, will be a key factor in the success of the project and make it grow in the same way as the UEFA Champions League.
Kawabuchi feels that preparations are progressing according to plan and the committee is expected to unveil the format of the new AFC Champions League next May as well as the associations that will be involved and the number of clubs that will take part. The entire process is due to be finalised next October.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter firmly believes that the successful reform of Asia’s professional leagues can stimulate world football. “In Asia, you have 60 per cent of the world population: that is 60 per cent of the footballers. It will be a big market in the future,” he pointed out. “In South America or Africa, there are those who want to go and play in professional leagues. Where can they go? Asia. But they [the Asian leagues] have to be good to offer a decent league to them.”