ASEAN teams need a helping hand and a second leg

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden reckons the AFC Champions League format should be tweaked to give ASEAN teams some help.

And there we have it. Four East Asian teams in the final round of the playoffs for the 2018 AFC Champions League and all four go through at the expense of Southeast Asian opposition.

The four groups of four in the East Asian half of the first round will contain four from China, four from South Korea and four from Japan.Four’s all round then. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair for Southeast Asia. There have been plenty of articles written over the years, some by this writer, arguing for a greater share of the slots for teams from the ASEAN region. In all my years spent living in East Asia and Southeast Asia, one thing is clear: there is a greater enthusiasm in the latter for the Champions League than in much of the former.

This is about the play-offs however. They have become an established part of the Asian football calendar. For fans in the eastern half of the continent, they mark the start of the new season, a very early look at how at their teams will line-up. They have the potential to be barnstorming games, a rip-roaring curtain raiser for the year.

But this does not happen for the simple reason that the final play-offs consist of one leg only. These potential blockbusters are robbed of their second act. The climax to these events never comes.

Take Tuesday. Two big-spending Chinese teams in Tianjin Quanjian and Shanghai SIPG were at home to Ceres Negros of the Philippines and Changrai United of Thailand respectively. Two time continental champions Suwon Bluewings of South Korea hosted FLC Thanh Hoa of Vietnam and J-League team Kashiwa Reysol saw off Thai titans Muangthong United.

Four home games, four home wins, 11 scored and just one conceded. Dramatic these encounters were not. It is not just about drama however but about fairness. It is not fair that these defeats help define the reputation of Southeast Asian football in other parts of the continent. Yet observers are only getting half the story.

If there have to be one legged games, then it would even things up a little if Southeast Asian teams were given the home ties. When China, Japan and Korea are the established nations with continental titles and are given home advantage against teams that are still finding their way in Asian club competitions, it just adds to the feeling of the bigger boys getting a helping hand.

The best solution is to have two legs. Of course, it adds to the list of fixtures for teams to play. In the eastern side at least, this is not a real problem.

Clubs in the region are in pre-season mode anyway. It would just be a case of swapping a friendly for a competitive game. Plenty of clubs in East Asia spend their build-ups in warmer climes and some are already in the ASEAN region holding training camps. A second leg would be another excuse to head to Thailand, Malaysia or Vietnam.

It is not just about the games. On Tuesday, we saw teams from a part of the world that doesn’t do winter (despite what people in Malaysia and Vietnam have said recently due to unusually cool weather) and rarely sees temperatures below 20C, having to head north and play in the snow with the mercury well south of freezing. These not only tough places to go, tough teams to face but tough conditions to play in.

The likes of Muangthong and Ceres and all the others should get the chance to enjoy a little home advantage of their own, to get the northerners down into the heat and humidity and give them a pre-season work out they will never forget, roared on by passionate home crowds.

Some may say that the 11-1 combined scoreline shows that a second leg wouldn’t make a huge difference but that is, again, unfair. When you have only one leg then you need to win. If you go behind, you have to attack and run the risk of a heavier defeat, otherwise you are going home with nothing.

When there is a second leg to consider, then the situation is different. Visitors can play with that in mind, happy to restrict the hosts and perhaps get an away goal to make the journey home a little more comfortable.

At the moment, it is the big boys if East Asia who are sitting pretty. One-off home games in wintry conditions against teams from weaker leagues means that the odds are stacked in their favour.

It is time to make things a little fairer and give ASEAN teams a helping hand in the form of a second leg.