Why ASEAN should have more teams in the AFC Champions League

Paul Williams Paul Williams

With the draw for the 2018 AFC Champions League to take place on Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Paul Williams argues it’s time for more Southeast Asian teams to take part in the competition.

When the Asian Football Confederation expanded the AFC Asian Cup to 24 teams, more than a few eyebrows were raised, with the common question among critics being whether adding an additional eight teams would dilute the quality of the tournament.

The AFC countered that it was for the long-term benefit of football across Asia, that the opportunities generated for lower-ranked nations to play at the higher level would bridge the gap between Asia’s elite and its middle and lower-tier.

It’s time they applied that thinking to the AFC Champions League.

As it stands, ten of the 12 automatic qualifying spots in East Asia are taken by clubs from Japan, Korea, China and Australia – the ‘big four’ if you will.

Given the likelihood of clubs from those four nations also filling the last four spots after the preliminary playoffs, especially given the significant advantage afforded to them by hosting the final playoff, it means the East Zone of the ACL effectively becomes a competition between teams from just four leagues.

Muangthong gave an excellent account of themselves in 2017 as they reached the Round of 16

It’s hardly representative of football on this side of the continent and is all very same-same. After a number of years of this same format the tournament needs a spark.

While there are exciting matches, the experience offered at all matches is often largely the same, with mostly empty stadiums not providing an ideal backdrop for Asia’s showpiece tournament.

It’s time AFC undertook a major overhaul of the allocations and expanded the tournament to include teams from more nations.

Sure, there may be a sizable gap in quality between the best teams in Japan or Korea and those in Southeast Asia, but as with the Asian Cup, the best way for them to improve is to regularly play at against teams at a highest level. Short-term pain for long-term gain.

As it is, some clubs in Southeast Asia are often punished for their success. Nine times out of ten they’ll fail to make it past the playoffs for the ACL, but because of the rules in place, can’t then drop down to play in the AFC Cup, denying them of any meaningful continental competition.

That was the case for Bangkok United this year, and will be the case for Chiangrai United next year if they don’t win through to the group stage.

How is that fair and how does that help improve their standard in order to compete at that higher level?

What needs to happen is to return the AFC Champions League to being just that, the Champions League, with more league and cup champions from more nations. And in East Asia, that means more teams from Southeast Asia.

Scale back the maximum number of teams any league can have from four to three, and re-allocate those extra few automatic places to nations further down the line, which would mean, based on allocations for 2018, that Vietnam and Malaysia would pick up automatic qualifying spots.

Suwon are one win away from the group stage despite finishing 3rd in the K League Classic

The top two ranked leagues would receive the maximum allocation, which would be three automatic qualifiers. None of their clubs would enter qualifying. Only teams from the nations ranked three and below would enter teams in qualifying, creating more opportunities for nations further down the chain to be represented in the group stage.

What you may lose in quality you make up for in diversity and excitement, and opening the tournament up to a region with some of the most passionate fans in Asia.

There’s a case to be made that some clubs and fans in Australia, Japan and Korea don’t always value participation in the AFC Champions League as much as they should. More often than not, that isn’t the case in Southeast Asia.

Imagine JDT or even Chiangrai United in the group stage of the AFC Champions League, facing off perhaps against Shanghai SIPG or Urawa Red Diamonds. Their fans would relish the opportunity, and the stadium would be packed to the rafters. It would be a great occasion, one worthy of being in the AFC Champions League.

The more teams in Southeast Asia are exposed to playing at a higher level, exposed to different playing styles, exposed to different climates and difficult away travel, and the more experience the players get playing at the elite level the better, it will be for football across the region.

The AFC Champions League is Asia’s showpiece tournament and needs as much colour, passion and noise as possible to showcase Asian football in the best possible light.

That’s not done by having the third and fourth (sometimes lower) best teams from Japan, Korea, and Australia play in front of largely empty stadiums. That’s done by inviting more teams from one of the most passionate regions in all of Asia.

South Korea – 3+0
Japan – 3+0
China – 2+1
Australia – 2+1
Thailand – 1+1
Hong Kong – 1+1
Vietnam – 1+1
Malaysia – 1+1
Indonesia – 0+2
Myanmar – 0+2
Philippines – 0+1
Singapore – 0+1

Match 1:
Singapore vs Philippines
Match 2: Myanmar (1) vs Indonesia (2)
Match 3: Malaysia vs Vietnam
Match 4: Indonesia (1) vs Myanmar (2)

Match 5:
Winner Match 1 vs Thailand
Match 6: Winner Match 2 vs Winner Match 3
Match 7: Winner Match 4 vs Hong Kong
Match 8: China vs Australia

Match 9:
Winner Match 5 vs Winner Match 6
Match 10: Winner Match 7 vs Winner Match 8

Winners of both Match 9 and Match 10 to advance to Group Stage of AFC Champions League.