The AFC has made some major changes to the 2017 AFC Cup. The continent’s second-tier club football championship will now be played in an entirely new format.
The old East-West format
In the 2016 edition, 32 teams participated in the tournament finals. The clubs were divided into two zones, East Asia and West Asia, with 16 teams in each zone. The 16 teams in the East and West zones were then divided into four groups of four teams each.
The winners and runners up from each group qualified for the knockout stages – the Round of 16, Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Final. The brackets were separated to ensure an East and a West Asian team met in the Final.
In 2016, India’s Bengaluru FC qualified as finalists from East Asia and Air Force Club of Iraq qualified from the West zone.
The New Format
From 2017, the AFC Cup will have a new format. Instead of two zones, clubs will be divided into 5 zones, namely West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and ASEAN, similar to the sub-confederations in Asia.
As India falls under the South Asian Football Federation, Indian clubs have been grouped with clubs from other South Asian nations, namely Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan.
The ASEAN Zone will feature clubs from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
This will see 36 teams in the Group Stage of the tournament.
Each Zone has direct slots and slots allocated via play-offs.
West Asia Zone : 9 direct/3 from play-offs = 12 teams (Three groups)
ASEAN Zone : 9 direct/3 from play-offs = 12 teams (Three groups)
Central Asia Zone : 3 direct/1 from play-offs = 4 teams (One group)
East Asia Zone : 3 direct/1 from play-offs = 4 teams (One group)
South Asia Zone : 3 direct/1 from play-offs = 4 teams (One group)
This gives the new total of 36 teams in nine groups across the five zones.
Last year’s defeated finalists Bengaluru FC, as I-League Champions will enter the group stage, joined by Maziya from Maldives and Dhanmodi from Bangladesh. The fourth team will be decided based on the play-off round where Mohun Bagan, who would have gotten a Group Stage entry as per the earlier format, will play another club from the region.
Bengaluru FC will also be playing the AFC Champions League Qualifiers and should Bengaluru go through to the Group Stage of the Champions League, East Bengal will take their place in the AFC Cup.
In case Mohun Bagan also qualify for the Group Stage, India will have two clubs in the same group!
The same goes for ASEAN Clubs, should Tampines Rovers qualify for the AFC Champion’s League, Geylang International would take their place in the AFC Cup.
The knockout stage has been completely overhauled. There is no longer a Round of 16 or Quarterfinals. And this is where it gets complicated.
All knockout matches, except for the final, will be played over two legs, known as play-offs or semifinals.
These are divided into zonal semifinals, zonal finals and inter-zonal semifinals & finals and then the final proper. Let’s take on this in detail.
Eight teams – four each from the ASEAN and West Asia groups (three group winners and the best runner up) will play the zonal semifinals over two legs.
The winners of each semifinal go on and play in the zonal finals, another two legged affair. This will give us two teams – one from ASEAN and one from West Asia. The winner from the West Asia zone goes directly into the final of the 2017 AFC Cup.
The winner of the ASEAN zonal final and the three winners of the Central Asian, South Asian and East Asian zones, will then contest the inter-zonal play-off semifinals over two legs.
The winners of those two semifinals will contest a two-legged inter-zonal play-off final. The winner of the inter-zonal final will be the second finalist for the 2017 AFC Cup final proper.
The winner of the West Asia zonal final and the winner of the inter-zonal play-off final will then play the one legged final to decide the 2017 AFC Cup winner.