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Asia – Changes for future

Asian football is entering a new phase with next year’s revamped AFC Champions League (ACL). The new format of the annual club competition features some notable changes from previous tournaments and shows that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is determined to further develop the quality of the game in the region.

Clubs from Japan, Korea Repu¬blic, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait and India will all feature in the reformed ACL from next March. Asia’s biggest club competition will be expanded from 28 teams to 32, including two teams from the qualifying play-offs. The group stage, which will run from 11 March to 20 May, will be played on a regional basis, with the teams being separated into East and West. The round of 16 will be held on a similar split basis on 27 May and 14 June before the tournament merges geographically for the quarter-finals, scheduled for 23-24 and 30 September. The semi-finals will be on 21 and 28 October with the one-off final scheduled for 6 or 7 November at a neutral venue (the hosts will be announced on November 26). This new format of the annual club competition was approved by the AFC Executive Committee at a meeting on 29 July.
All of this may seem quite familiar to those who know the UEFA Champions League, apart from the fact that the first two rounds will be divided along regional lines in order to ease the logistical burdens. However, the reformed ACL includes one significant change: for the first time, all of the participating clubs will be professional and they will have won their spots in the competition after tough qualifying races.
The restructuring of the ACL has been the major project for the Asian governing body since early 2006. AFC President Mohamed bin Hammam decided to revamp the competition in order to set a new standard for Asian football, not only on the pitch, but more significantly off it as well.
Asian football has developed consider¬ably in the last few years as various countries have developed and become more competitive at international level. Korea Republic reached the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup”1, while co-hosts Japan made it to the round of 16. But while more and more Asian players are playing in the world’s top leagues – for example, in England, Germany, France and Italy – something needed to be done to further raise the level of the game in Asia and sustain this development.
Bin Hammam came up with the idea of reforming the AFC Champions League and making it a competition for professional clubs only. The aim of this was to encourage member associations to improve the organisation and manage¬ment of their leagues and clubs, thus ensuring a solid foundation for the competition. He placed former japan Football Association President and J. League Chairman Saburo Kawabuchi in charge of the AFC Pro League Ad Hoc Committee tasked with carrying out this major project. Kawabuchi was the man who spearheaded Japan’s first professional league.
Clubs wishing to take part in the ACL must meet certain criteria in areas such as the size of their business, attendance, marketing, governance, match operation, stadia and technical standards. They should also be established as legally authorised commercial entities and be professional organisations. “By keeping the criteria hurdles high, we wanted to show our member associations how serious we arc with this project,” explained Tokuaki Suzuki, Deputy Chairman of the AFC Pro League Ad Hoc Committee. “We also believe that the strict criteria will clarify the requirements for the participants.”
After on-site inspections and a survey, the committee checks the applicants’ ability to meet the criteria and they are then rated from A to D. “A” means they already meet all the criteria, “B” that they will meet the criteria by 1 October, “C” suggests that they are not guaranteed of meeting the criteria by 1 October and “D” means they do not meet the criteria.
The competing teams are allocated according to their grade and the number of clubs in their national league. In the East group stage, Japan (A), Korea Republic (B) and China (B) will have four clubs; Australia (B) will have two; and Indonesia (B) one. In the West group stage, Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE (all B) will be represented by four clubs each, while Kuwait, Jordan and India (all B) will each have one.
Nevertheless, some people are con¬cerned that the allocations do not always match the country’s standards. Syria and Uzbekistan, for example, are known for their qualify on the pitch. Syria’s Al Karama were runners-up in the 2006 tournament, while Uzbekistan’s Kuruvchi reached this year’s ACL quarter-finals. Suzuki explains: “We are hoping that all participating teams will secure their slot

through their performances in the future. But right now, Asia is still in the process of developing, and we have to create our foundation first, otherwise we cannot continue with the tournament. That is why we have to consider the maturity of our professional leagues first when allocating slots to the associations.”
The teams in the group stage will be joined by the qualifiers from the play-offs, which will be contested by the AFC Cup finalists, along with teams from Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in the East, and Syria, Uzbekistan and Qatar in the West. This system is also new to the ACL. “We think it is important to have the qualifying play-offs,” says Suzuki. “It means that we can provide clubs who meet the criteria, but whose league still has some problems to sort out, with an opportunity to take part, fhe ACL is a link to the world – thanks to the FIFA Club World Cup – and it is always nice to leave the door open for our clubs to have a dream and encourage them to challenge for something.”
Although the format has been announced, some amendments to team allocations may be made depending on the preparation level of the associations with B grades. The committee will visit those associations by early November and check to see if they have met the conditions.
If any of the B-grade applicants fail to meet the requirements by the deadline, they will be disqualified. A C-grade association may then be promoted if it meets the criteria by the due date. Syria and Qatar, initially rated as C, have recently started professional leagues to satisfy one part of the criteria. If necessary, the committee will make last-ditch amendments for final approval at the Executive Committee meeting on 26 November.
Another major change concerns prize money and expenses. All of the participating clubs will be guaranteed certain travel expenses and prize money. Previously, the winning club would pocket the prize of USD 600,000 and there were no travel expenses. The AFC has secured a total purse of USD 20 million per year for the revamped tournament thanks to a contract with the World Sport Group. Under these new terms, the champions will earn USD 1.5 million and the runners-up USD 750,000, and teams have the opportunity to win prize money at each stage. The budget has been guaranteed until 2012. Future amounts will depend on the outcome of the next two tournaments.
“The first two years will be crucial in enabling us to strike a good deal for the following years. It’s vital that we show the value of our Champions League,” stressed Suzuki.
The reformed competition is now at the starting gate. It will be interesting to see how the ACL and Asian football develops.