AFC must take action if clubs continue to disrespect AFC Champions League

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre reckons the Asian Football Confederation must take action if clubs continue to deprioritise the AFC Champions League by fielding weakened teams.

Usually it’s around this point of the AFC Asian Champions League that we start to hit what I call the ‘ghost zone’ but disappointingly for many it arrived a week early this year for some clubs.

It’s the period of the competition where optimism gives way to pragmatism, where hopes fade and priorities start to shift as the ‘mirror’ matches appear on match-days three and four as the same two clubs visit each other home and away within the space of a week.

Traditionally it’s the period where the first couple of teams to secure their passage to the second round do so and where the strugglers are formally eliminated.

It’s what happens in and around these matches that I want to touch on again though, because what we’ve already seen arise this year are serious questions over the ambition of a collection of clubs as well as the impact that their decisions to play with weakened squads has on the competitive integrity of the tournament as a whole.

Thankfully, there seems to be less of a problem with wholesale squad rotation than we’ve seen down the years in the ACL but what happened last week with the J.League clubs, in particular, should not be allowed to happen again.

Kashima Antlers sent a team to Sydney missing several first team regulars who were rested in preference to the weekend’s J.League matches, as did both Kashiwa and Kawasaki for their home matches against Kitchee and Melbourne Victory.

In isolation you could mount an argument as to the need to do so in those cases but what Cerezo Osaka did in blatantly flaunting the ideals and intent of the ACL is inexcusable.

Their ‘regular’ first team options all played in the J.League over the last two weekends yet in between they ‘rotated’ not one, not two or three but the entire starting XI for their ACL match away to Buriram.

In essence, they sent a collection of squad and youth players that regularly feature for the U-23 side which plays in J3 and, justifiably, were defeated 2-0 in Thailand.

Quite clearly this will have an impact on their chances of progressing through to the knockout rounds but far more seriously, it has an impact in several other areas and it’s for those reasons as much as anything else that the AFC must move if other clubs look to pull similar ‘stunts’ in this week’s round of matches.

Firstly, it hands a serious advantage to the team that those clubs who engage in mass rotation play – in this case Buriram – whilst at the same time handing a potential advantage to other clubs in the group who are also fighting for progression.

This serious impact on sporting integrity should be reason alone for the AFC to act swiftly but what it also does is potentially impact on the future allocation of spots in the tournament itself.

The AFC’s Club Competitions Ranking model does as decent a job as can be expected in determining just where each nation ranks across the continent in determining how many spots each club will receive for the ACL and AFC Cup.

However, given that 90 percent of those ranking points are awarded on the basis of previous performance by clubs from each nation it’s clear to see that if one or two deliberately name vastly understrength teams for these tournaments then it risks not only harming themselves but also other clubs from their own nation – many of whom would be desperate to participate in the competition.

Speaking with Fox Sports Asia after last week’s match in Kawasaki, the Melbourne Victory coach, Kevin Muscat, touched on these issues of ensuring that all clubs respect the competition, even whilst noting some of the disadvantages that some face.

He said: “We’re in a competition where in any other sport it’d be a mismatch because of the resources available to Shanghai, Ulsan and even Kawasaki compared to ours.

“Not only do we have a resource disadvantage to all these teams but we also have a roster disadvantage that means we don’t have big rosters based on the fact that we’ve got a salary cap in the A-League.

“It wouldn’t be allowed in other sports because it’s so one-sided but that’s what we enjoy in being that underdog and trying to gain and improve on the respect that we’ve got and our brand’s got around Asia.”

These are very important words for other clubs to consider as we approach the point where mass rotation has really been an issue in past editions of the ACL.

As Muscat also told Fox Sports Asia, this is the highest level of football available on the continent and one that is the perfect testing ground for any club and the ambitions they hold, and that’s certainly the case for a Melbourne Victory side that once again face Kawasaki this week.

“We got out of the group stage in our last campaign and there was a great sense of achievement about that considering everything that is stacked against us and we believe that we’re still in a position to do that this time around and it becomes a more important tie now in Melbourne.

“We also have to remember that the majority of these players have earned the right by qualifying to be here in the ACL and we want to test ourselves and see how far we can go and at the same time gain some respect.”

Once again, respect is the key word.

Participation in the ACL should be a privilege and not a right and if clubs continue to flaunt the competition by sending second or third string sides to these games then they should be banned from competing in the future, plain and simple.

We’ve heard strong words out of the AFC head office about this in the past but with the blatant disrespect that Cerezo showed last week in Thailand – and the risk of similar scenes occurring again this week, it’s time for words to change to action.