Do the AFC Awards need a shake up?

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

It takes a certain kind of swagger to rock up to an awards ceremony with a shirt emblazoned with ‘be the best’ on and if it was anyone else than the man wearing it you might have questioned their modesty. 

When it’s UAE wizard Omar Abdulrahman it’s entirely understandable.

The outstanding technician, creator of goals, finisher of goals and all-round showman is in Bangkok to defend his AFC Player of the Year title that is amongst a host of awards that will be presented this evening in the Thai capital.

For years the main prize – the male Player of the Year – has been dogged by questionable nominations, obscure criteria and bizarre requirements that for several editions included the edict that you had to be able to actually attend the ceremony to take home the gong.

That confluence of drastic regulations and hazy barometers reached a nadir when Hamad Al-Montashari was crowned Asia’s ‘best’ player in 2005 and although the list of nominees has generally tended to be well regarded since then nobody in their right mind believes the way the awards are structured actually represents the ‘best’ in most categories. 

The male player of the year is inherently unfair and restrictive in that only those players who feature for their national teams or in AFC competitions are even eligible to win it. 

You can score a thousand goals in your domestic league but not even be considered if you didn’t do it in the ‘required’ events. 

A points system that weighs players on the basis of being awarded ‘Man of the Match’ in these various competitions is surely not the way to select the leading player on the continent.

Even more so when you realise that for many of these matches the people making those judgments are not even from the AFC’s obscure ‘technical department’ but rather the match commissioners that the AFC posts to the various Champions League and AFC Cup fixtures.

These postings are known across the region as something of a gravy train where the actual football often takes a back seat to extracurricular activities and all-expense paid luxuries and goodness only knows why these people – many of whom in my direct experience have little to no technical understanding of the game and barely a passing interest in it – are actually voting on player performances. 

That’s setting aside the fact that if you were, for argument’s sake, the second best player in a hundred matches, you’d still never even make the short-list. 

If we extend the argument to the Coach of the Year award the criteria used is even more foggy with only those who have guided a team in either FIFA or AFC tournaments deemed worthy for the award which often, if not always, means that worthy candidates are completely omitted and others are included that are perhaps not top of the merit list.

Take a look at the trio of contenders this year with Masatada Ishii, Ange Postecoglou and Takafumi Hori the three shortlisted men.

The first was sacked by his domestic club mid-season and has since overseen the relegation of his current side, Omiya, the second – despite outstanding results – is no longer the national coach (although surely hands-down the winner here) and the third has been in charge for less than half a season and lost almost as many ACL matches as he won.

Compare the two Japanese contenders to even their own domestic opposition and you’d struggle to find anyone who would place either ahead of the current Cerezo Osaka coach, Yoon Jong-hwan, who won the League Cup with the promoted side, has steered them to the semis of the Emperor’s Cup and to a top-three finish in the J.League.

What we – the fans, the lovers of the game – want is the best full stop, not the best in a certain range of matches. 

Surely the time has come for the AFC to stop hiding behind these narrow and restrictive criteria (with it not being made at all clear who in the ‘technical department’ is even watching these matches and judging the players/coaches) and expand the way that the awards are run to find the player/coach that truly is the ‘best’ in Asia, as subjective as that may be.

The FIFA ‘Best’ Award was restructured to have a collection of national team coaches/captains, media representatives and even a fan vote all used as part of the criteria. 

Surely this is the way forward too for the AFC and whilst not without its issues there’s no question that a more inclusive, wide-ranging, criteria for judging the continent’s best players will increase its value and reputation – especially if every national association in Asia has a panel comprised of players, coaches and journalists that regularly watch the matches involved in making these decisions. 

The problem with Asia is that it’s such a wide expanse of nations that covers the whole gamut of football from underdeveloped amateur leagues to those at the top of the pyramid who regularly export leading talent abroad and to think that a small cabal of unnamed technical committee members and match commissioners at the AFC watch even a sliver of this action is ridiculous.

This year with the three male contenders in Abdulrahman, China’s Wu Lei and the man sure to win it, Syria’s Omar Khribin, there can be no argument about the quality present, neither can there be with the two outstanding female contenders in Australia’s Sam Kerr and Japan’s Saki Kumagai but the fact remains that the process in getting to this point is opaque and not at all inclusive.

The more eyes watching the game across Asia and debating players and performances the better it is for everyone, including the AFC, to make sure that only the best of the best in each category make their way to glitzy ballrooms where these awards are handed out.