Thursday, January 23, 2014
AFC Splits into East & West
In a move that surprised many, the AFC has done just that with its flagship club competition, the AFC Champions League. From this year onwards the tournament will be split into two until the Final, still to be played over two legs, ensuring an East vs West final.
The cynic will suggest this is a power play by the Middle East bloc to ensure one of 'their' teams makes the final after East Asia has dominated the competition in recent years. Seven of the last eight finals have been won by East Asian teams, although on only two occasions (2008 and 2013) has the final been an all East Asian affair.
But is it a good move for a tournament designed to unite all of Asia? Is this the first step on the path to a full split of the confederation?
With the tournament just a week away from beginning, with the first play off between Pune FC and Hanoi T&T to take place next Wednesday, I take a look at the pros and cons for splitting the tournament in two. Let's start on a bright note and look at the pros first.
No. 1 - Less travel costs
This is true, without the long intra-continental flights from East to West, or vice versa, the travel burden will be eased. However just how much is a matter for debate. The 'old' editions of the ACL were split East-West through the Group Stage and Round of 16. Only the Quarter Finals and Semi Finals had an open draw.
That meant an even 4-4 representation in the Quarter Finals and it was luck of the draw from that point on. Only three times in the last four years has there been an all East/West Quarter Final. So there will be less travel costs incurred, and of course, less travel which means less stress on the bodies of the players.
Clubs and fans have long complained that competing in the ACL makes it difficult to maintain a strong title challenge in their domestic league due to the travel and physical strain placed upon their players. Less travel will ease that somewhat, but it's still up to the clubs to manage their repspective campaigns appropriately.
No. 2 - Better for TV
Ahh, television. It is the controller of sports in the modern era, dictating timeslots based upon what is best for their ratings. The ACL doesn't have the lucrative television contracts in place for the TV networks to have that much pull, but the split is no doubt better for the various TV networks, allowing games played at a more ideal hour.
For example, in Australia, if Western Sydney were to play Esteghlal, kick off would not be until the early hours of the morning. Only the diehards would be up watching.
By splitting East-West, the TV time slots become more favourable. Now if Western Sydney were to play Guangzhou or FC Seoul the match would kick off at a more respectable time in the evening.
While the ACL might not have the lucrative TV contracts in place at the moment, the AFC will no doubt be looking to increase the value of those contracts over the coming years.
The best way to do that is to get more people watching the games, making it a more attractive product for the various networks. Having games kick off at TV and fan friendly hours is a good place to start.
No. 3 - Guaranteed East vs. West Final
The best team from the East vs. the best team from the West. With the AFC being such a large and diverse confederation having a finalist from each zone ensures interest from each zone until the end.
If all four East Asian teams won their Quarter Finals to ensure an all-East Asian top four the west would quickly tune out. And vice versa.
Of course the ACL is still very parochial, most countries care only for their representatives and this is the big challenge for the AFC, to make fans in Japan, for example, care when all Japanese teams are eliminated. No easy feat.
Now for the cons…
No. 1 - Divides the confederation
Part of the mantra of the AFC, and the ACL, is to unite the confederation. In fact, that's what the logo represents - east and west intertwining. Why then separate the two? How will you increase knowledge and respect for West Asian football in East Asia if you effectively block it out? Asian football right across the continent needs more exposure, not less.
The cultural and linguistic differences between east and west are vast, as are the differing football cultures. That is what the Champions League should be about, exposing the players, fans and officials to a different culture and style, and the teams who tackle and overcome those differences have truly earned the right to face off in the final to be crowned Asian champion.
No. 2 - The two "best" teams?
The final of any competition should comprise the two best teams of the tournament. While that is not always the case, luck and good fortune can always play its part and help propel an inferior team, in most cases that point rings true.
It was certainly the case last year when Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul were pitted against each other. Under the new format that final would not have been possible. While you will, or should, have the best from the East vs. the best from the West you won't necessarily get the two best teams, and the competition loses as a result.
No. 3 - Risk of staleness
The AFC has done a great thing by expanding the qualifying for the ACL to include teams from more nations, but the reality is the gulf in class still exists, meaning that in 9/10 cases the team from the bigger nations will win.
In the case of East Asia that means a competition full of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Australian teams. Will fans quickly tire of playing teams from the same countries over and over again, especially when knowledge of the teams is so limited? It's just "another" Japanese team or "another" Korean team. Variety is the spice of life and that is what the ACL will lack.
However, by only playing teams from your zone you increase the likelihood of rivalries developing and fans' knowledge of the respective teams increasing, especially if the same teams qualify year-in, year-out. Ask any Adelaide United fan about Gamba Osaka. They may not know much about Japanese or Asian football, but they know Gamba Osaka.
Personally, I fall into the negative camp. I think the ACL should be about uniting a confederation that is already split. I'm not a fan of splitting the AFC into two separate confederations, and this looks like it could be the first step down that path. Instead of retreating to our respective corners we should be opening up Asia and playing as one.
What do you think? Has the AFC made the right move?
Copyright © Paul Williams and Soccerphile.com