What was almost as impressive as Muangthong United’s 1-0 win over Ulsan Horangi in the 2017 Asian Champions League on Wednesday was the sight and sounds of a full stadium.
The arena is one of the best around, not in terms of aesthetics or grandeur as it is a fairly simple structure, but with the atmosphere it helps create. With fans so close to the pitch and four separate stands, it has an English feel but the supporters were treated to a typically tasty Thai display against the 2012 continental champions.
It ended in a nervy finish for the hosts but the winning margin should have been more. The full-backs, Tristan Do and Theerathon Bunmathan pushed up to cause problems with their delivery and energy and dropped back to deny space to the Tigers. Chanathip Songkrasin was as intelligently influential as usual and Teerasil Dangda was a thorn in the Korean side.
Former Ulsan star Lee Ho protected the defence well with the centre-backs rarely in trouble. Any danger, which wasn’t much, was dealt with competently by Kawin Thamsatchanan.
With two games remaining in the group stage, Muangthong need one win to be sure of a place in the knockout stage for the first time and to follow in the footsteps of domestic rivals Buriram United who reached the last eight in 2013.
It should happen. This has been the classic group stage performance: win at home and draw away and there are few sides in Asia that will relish a trip just north of Bangkok. With a string of Thai internationals there is nobody to fear although there will be tougher tests in the knockout stage than those posed by Ulsan and Brisbane Roar.
It will be good for Thai football and good for Southeast Asian football if the Kirins make it. It should be good for Asian football too, but that depends on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Consider the earlier match between these two teams. Just 1,300 people saw Ulsan and Muangthong play out a 0-0 draw in March. The atmosphere in South Korea was non-existent. Granted, the stadium is far from downtown and it was a cold midweek evening but the contrast with the vibrant sights and sounds of this week could not be more different.
Yet a four figure crowd would have been welcomed on Monday as Al Jazira, runaway leader in the UAE league, drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia’s Al Fateh. The official attendance in Abu Dhabi was a pitiful and sadly, typo-free, 322.
Nice stadium, but where are the fans?
Such statistics are not only embarrassing for the continent’s showpiece competition but damage the brand. You can’t blame the AFC for the fickle nature of fans in some parts of the continent but you can ask why there is still an insistence on restricting the number of countries that are allowed to participate.
It hardly seems fair when the UAE and South Korea have eight participants in the group stage, a full quarter of the 32 that start out, while Southeast Asia has one. It hardly seems fair when there are individual countries that seem ambivalent about the tournament –especially the group stages — have four times the participants of an entire region that would love to get involved.
Unfair and increasingly unfathomable. It is time to share the spoils a little more. It is past that time. Everyone wins. Having more teams from Thailand and automatic representation from, Vietnam and Malaysia, to name just three, would increase the excitement levels all around. They would add lustre and atmosphere to the group stage while giving these countries and leagues real encouragement and increasing experience against the top leagues in the continent.
They would – perhaps – also remind more established Asian Champions League nations that the competition needs to be appreciated more and taken for granted a little less.
As we have seen, the best in Southeast Asia can compete on the pitch with the best in the east, the strongest region in the whole continent. Increasingly off the pitch, they are better, not necessarily in terms of sports science or facilities but when it comes to actually attracting fans to the stadium to see the games. This ability is crucial and has to become a much more important factor when decisions about which league gets how many places are taken.
If you let them in, they will come!
There are too many empty seats around Asia but there are options for the AFC to go some way to filling them and letting in more of ASEAN’s top teams is an easy and obvious start. Not only are they good enough – and will get better with more exposure to the continent’s showpiece event – but they bring fans, atmosphere and passion.
And that is what it is all about. Or should be. It is time to open Asia’s top club competition to its most passionate football region.