Out of their league

Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo (left) falls after colliding with Fayha’s Mukhair al-Rashidi during the AFC Champions League match in Riyadh on Feb 21. — AFP

AT least nobody can accuse Asia’s football authorities of failing to sweat the small stuff.

It would be easy to overlook the little things, after all, when their job is to nurture and promote the most popular sport on the planet for the benefit of almost five billion people spread across a third of the world’s landmass.

In many ways, then, it is admirable that the Asian Football Confederation can still find the time to dictate precisely which water bottles, with which labels, fans should be allowed to carry into stadiums. That kind of attention to detail should reassure you that football’s future – from Beirut to Beijing, and Ulaanbaatar to Hobart – is in safe hands.

Unfortunately, that is not quite the picture that emerges from a report, commissioned by football’s global players’ union, FIFPro, assessing the benefits and shortcomings of Asia’s most prestigious club competition, the Asian Champions League.

Instead, the report documents a tournament that acts as an almost perfect microcosm of football’s general direction across the globe.

There is plenty of the sort of officious nitpicking beloved of sports authorities. As well as addressing the crucial issue of water bottles, the AFC’s “clean stadium” requirements – the rules that decree that arenas for Champions League games must be free of non-approved advertising – take on pressing matters like the logos on backpacks and the branding on bottle caps.

The AFC appear to be far less concerned with whether the tournament actually works for the clubs involved. According to estimates from two competing teams, enforcing the clean stadium rules alone costs US$50,000 (RM240,000) a game.

Travelling for away matches is even more expensive. In Europe, teams habitually travel first class – for what, in the report, is described as “high performance purposes,” a logic that sadly does not apply to journalists at The New York Times – but the sheer geography of Asia means that is not an option.

Yokohama’s Kota Watanabe (left) takes a shot at goal against Bangkok United during their last-16 match. — AFPYokohama’s Kota Watanabe (left) takes a shot at goal against Bangkok United during their last-16 match. — AFP

The average distance travelled for a road game in the Asian Champions League is about 2,300 miles.

That makes even flying economy notably burdensome: One Australian team reported that they had spent US$95,000 (RM453,000) to transport and house their players and staff members for a single fixture in Japan, substantially more than the US$60,000 (RM286,000) subsidy the AFC provide until the later rounds of the competition.

That is where some of the 40 clubs to have made the group stage will be able to make up the losses they have accrued along the way.

But only some of them: Half of the US$15mil (RM72mil) prize money is awarded to the eventual winner and runner-up. The losing semi-finalists might make US$500,000 (RM2.4mil).

FIFPro’s findings suggest the bulk of the teams lose significant money just by taking part.

“The outcome is that the competition is least affordable for those clubs that are eliminated early, which also tend to be clubs from smaller or less-developed markets,” the report said.

Urawa Reds, the Japanese club that won last year’s edition, reported to the union that only the finalists would earn enough prize money to recover their costs.

Presumably, then, it is good news that the AFC have already decided to change the way the competition works. Starting later this year, the Asian Champions League will consist of only 24 teams.

Instead of the traditional home-and-away match-ups in the knockout rounds, the quarter-finals onward will borrow a form recognisable from the later stages of international tournaments: one-and-done games held in a single country over the course of little more than a week.

Al Hilal’s Salem al-Dawsari shoots but fails to score against Iran’s Sepahan FC at the Kingdom Arena Stadium in Riyadh on Feb 22. — AFPAl Hilal’s Salem al-Dawsari shoots but fails to score against Iran’s Sepahan FC at the Kingdom Arena Stadium in Riyadh on Feb 22. — AFP

It should be no surprise to anyone that, for the first five years, that final stage will be held in Saudi Arabia.

The plan, as it happens, is a good one. And given the sudden influx of household names into Saudi club sides over the last year, the timing is impeccable, too.

Fewer teams means each game in the new format should be of a higher quality. Concentrating the later rounds in one location will allow for more meetings between teams from the east and west of the continent.

(Currently, the best of Japan and South Korea cannot meet the powerhouses from Iran and Saudi Arabia until the final.)

The teams who make it that far will not have to plan, or pay for, multiple long-haul trips.

The comparatively scant detail that has emerged, though, does not offer encouraging reading for anyone hoping this might be a chance to make the competition work for everyone.

The AFC cannot do much about how large Asia happens to be, but they have also not offered any reassurances about whether they intend to increase travel budgets, or reduce their demands for partner-approved stadiums.

What is known – it was very much in the headline when the transformation was announced – is that the winner of the tournament will receive around US$12mil (RM57mil). The runner-up will receive US$6mil (RM29mil).

As far as FIFPro are concerned, there is a good chance that much of the rest of the “value associated with the climactic later rounds accrue to the AFC and the host nation.”

The final tournament will be a tantalising property to sell to broadcasters. Nobody has said, as yet, how much of the revenue it might generate would go to the competition’s clubs.

That would, of course, be a considerable missed opportunity. It is the AFC’s stated aim to help spread and improve and support the game across Asia. They have, in the changes to their most prestigious competition, the perfect chance to do just that.

And yet there is a very good chance they will reject it, preferring instead to shower riches upon those clubs that need them least, while passing whatever benefits should arrive from the new format onto a handful of the strongest, wealthiest teams in their strongest, wealthiest leagues.

They will do so because of the abiding belief, held across football’s executive class, that growth in football is a product of pulling rather than pushing, and that change is effected from the top down, not the bottom up.

A vast majority of the clubs and countries that fall under the aegis of Asian football’s leaders will be locked out and left behind, the authorities’ interest only drawn when the wrong type of water bottle, with the wrong type of label, tarnishes the world they have created. — NYT

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