Monday, February 22, 2010

Return of the ACL

Tomorrow sees the Asian Champions League - as well as the AFC Cup - return for the new season, and not before time! Things were starting to get a little dull without it...

As always at this time of the year, everyone's full of the usual optimism and many eyes will be on champions Pohang Steelers after what has been an eventful winter transfer window. A new coach and a relatively new strike force will make matters interesting. How long it takes new coach Waldemar Lemos and the likes of Seol Ki-hyeon to settle in will have a major say in how they fair in the competition.

One thing that works in their favour - and is to the benefit of all the teams involved - was the AFC's long-overdue decision last year to introduce an additional knockout round. As a result, the top two teams progress to the second round rather than only the winner, as was the case in the past.

The tournament is now more balanced in that regard, with less riding on matters such as who has scored the most goals against the weaker teams in the group.

The tournament's far from perfect however. One of the genuine strengths of Asian football - and this is from the perspective of an observer or fan rather than assessing the technical side of the sport - is the huge diversity that exists right across such a vast and fascinating continent. Allowing four teams from Japan, Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia access to the group stages dilutes that diversity.

While it may be the right thing to do to make the overall competition stronger, it removes from the competition one of Asian football's finest qualities. Perhaps if the bigger nations sacrificed one berth each and those went to teams from Syria (Al Karama have proven to be more than capable of holding their own in the past), Kuwait, Jordan and a few other nations it would add more colour to the competition.

It would also allow AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam to defuse those allegations he faced last year that he is pushing too much of the confederation's income in the direction of the nations that already have more than most.

Having just overhauled the tournament last year, the chances of any changes - minor or major - are slim. But wouldn't it be nice to see a little bit more of the diversity Asia is famous for in its leading club competition?

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