Thursday, January 31, 2008

Asian Club Football in 2009

As the start of the 2008 AFC Champions league draws closer, mystery still surrounds the future of the tournament, with the AFC planning to 'revamp' the champions league, as well as 10 of the big Asian leagues, in 2009. Although the tournament was great to watch last year - it was very obvious that the format needed a few changes. Fans of Sydney FC will no doubt agree to this, as they were bundled out in the group stage - despite getting several good results and finishing second in their group of four. This is one thing that will be changed in 2009 - the top two from every group will go on to the knockout stages. Let's look at the rumored changes in more detail:

- The group stage will consist of 8 groups of 4, including four groups made up of East-Asian teams and four groups that will involve only teams from West Asia. The champion from the previous year will no longer receive a bye through the group stage.

- The top two from each group will move onto the round of 16 (rumored to be taking place before the Winter break), and from there the tournament will be a straight knockout. Teams from East and West Asian will be kept seperate untill the quarter finals.

- The Final match will no longer be played over two legs, but will be a single game - played at a neutral venue.

- The number of teams from each country will no longer be limited to two.

All these changes are certainly a step in the right direction, but I would like to make a couple of points. Firstly on the knockout stages - I don't think the idea of having a round of knockout matches before the mid-year break is a good one. It makes a lot more sense to have the group stages before the break, and play all the knockout rounds after the break - and balance out the year better.

Secondly I'm not sure that playing the final as one game will work. It works beautifully in Europe, but over there you have thousands and thousands of fans from all the big clubs who would be prepared to travel across the continent to watch their team play - the tournament also has a lot more prestige, so wherever the game is played - the stadium will be packed. Asia is a much bigger continent for a start, and although there are a few big clubs that would probably have at a few thousand fans traveling for the final, if ever a smaller club were involved - you'd be lucky to get a hundred fans travelling.

One more interesting point is the splitting up of East/West Asia - I certainly support this in the group stages as it means travel times are reduced and teams don't have to adjust to completely different timezones. I would even suggest that this be continued right through untill the final - you could even treat it as two tournaments - have the "East Asian Champions league" and the "West Asian Champions league" - and then the two winners would play-off. In fact there is a strong argument that the entire Asian Confederation should be split into two - it's already the biggest confederation and the middle east is closer to England than Australia. This, however, is a matter for another blog...

So far, the changes I have discussed have been, in the main, good ones - changes that will be welcomed by the Asian Football community. However there are a few more issues that have been mentioned as part of the AFC's revamp. The AFC wants to keep the ACL for the big professional Asian leagues, and it seems likely that many smaller leagues may have their allocation of teams reduced, or removed completely, from the Champions League.

Personally I do not agree with this at all - it is all well and good to want to improve the standard of football in the ACL, but you should be giving clubs from all the decent Asian leagues at least a chance to get into Asia's premier club competition. The smart thing to do would be to have a qualifying system like in Europe - you could give 16 spots in the group stages to the 'big' Asian leagues (generally considered to be the 4 East-Asian leagues of Japan, China, South Korea and Australia as well as the 4 big West Asian leagues of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE) and then have 32 more teams playing a knockout tie in February to decide the other 16 spots. Prehaps the loosers could receive a spot in the AFC Cup - a second tier competition similar to the UEFA Cup.

The AFC's revamp also extends beyond the Champions league - there have been reports that the AFC is planning to make big changes to several of Asia's big leagues - including the A-league. Around 12 months ago the AFC did a study which identified 10 leagues, the national leagues of Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, India, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which would be relaunched - sometime between 2009 and 2012. Some of the rumored changes, such as increasesd transparency and making the leagues more professional make a lot of sense - however the A-league and FFA are in for a shock if the AFC, as is rumored, forces all leagues to have promotion and relegation.

Some of the other potential changes are interesting, and could certainly be good ones - salary caps could help increase competitiveness, especially in Japan and Korea - this needs to be done carefully however, as you don't want to drive talent away from Asian leagues and into the lower leagues of Europe. I would like to see a standard foreign player rule - currently the A-league allows four foreigners in each side - I would like to see this changed to allow for 5 foreigners - but only three non-asians. The advantage of this is that it encourages development of Asian football - in much the same way that the foreign player rule in the A-league encourages development of Australian players.

There is no doubt that Asian football has a big future, and the Asian Champions league is crucial to that future - and also brings a lot of potential for Australian clubs. Let's just hope the AFC makes the right decisions, and doesn't make the sort of decisions that will do more harm than good.

Bye for now,

PS. The growth of Asian football would also be helped by an improvement in football broadcasting in the region. Maybe it is just because Australia is out of the loop (unlike most Asian Countries we do not have access to Star Sports or the Asian version of ESPN), but we get heaps of TV coverage of European football, and no where near enough coverage of football from other parts of Asia. On Wednesday all of Asia's big guns will kick off their World Cup qualifying campaigns, but the only TV coverage we get is of Australia's game - meanwhile several International friendlies from Europe (with no real significance) will be shown here... we get no coverage of any Asian leagues (apart from the A-league) and limited coverage of the Champions league. It is an area that needs attention, hopefully the likes of Fox Sports can address these problems - hopefully with the help of channels like Star Sports.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pim's Blueprint

The new head coach of the Socceroos, Pim Verbeek, probably didn't anticipate the debate that has dominated the Australian football community when he made his comments regarding the standard of the A-league compared to European leagues.

In the past couple of years, the Hyundai A-league has been doing things that many Australian football fans never thought possible - pulling big crowds, good tv ratings, engaging the mainstream media - but the question has always been in the back of fan's minds: how does this really compare to European football? Pim Verbeek's recent comments have brought this discussion out into the open - and all opinions are being laid on the table.

At a press conference last week, Pim made this claim: that a player who is training in Europe (specifically at clubs like Nuremburg and Karlsruhe in the German Bundesliga) would be better prepared for the upcoming World Cup Qualifier against Qatar than a player who is playing every week at an A-league club. These comments made headlines around the country - At times they were taken out of context, but they were very harsh comments. It is true that players who are training at big European clubs are generally better players than those playing in the A-league, with better skills and fitness, but training can not prepare you for a big international game, especially when you come up against a team like Qatar, who will be match fit - and very well prepared for the contest.

This is shown clearly by past results - in 2006 a Socceroos side with only A-league players beat Kuwait 2-0 at the Sydney Football Stadium (and were the dominant side), while a month later a side made up of European based players (many who had not been playing reguarly for their European clubs) were beaten comprehensively (loosing 2-0) in Kuwait City. Although the weather may have been partly to blame for Australia's loss on this occasion - there was no doubt that Australia's players were not ready for the physical contest. It was a similar story last year at the Asian Cup, the European based players were not ready - physically or mentally - even with a couple of weeks of preperation they could not prepare themselves well enough to even make the semi finals of the Asian Cup. If there was a bright spot in that campaign, it was the performance of A-league based players, who were match fit and showed that they had the quality to play at that level.

Both these examples demonstrate how the A-league, although maybe lacking some of the technical quality of many European leagues, provides decent preperation for international football. To say that to be training with a European club is better preperation for the game against Qatar than playing week-in-week-out in the A-league, is false - especially when the European based players will be getting off the plane only a couple of days before the match.

That being said, I still belive that the way Pim Verbeek has approached the game against Qatar - whether it be for the right reasons or not - is the best way to deal with these crucial matches - and should be seen as the blueprint for our future games of such nature. Pim has taken an A-league based squad, and prepared it for the game - he has worked with them for weeks, and they are ready to face Qatar in what will be a crucial game. He has then called up 19 European based players, due to logistical constraints, Pim will not be able to work with these players untill a day or two before the match. You can also expect that many players that Pim has called up will never actually make it to Australia, some will pick up 'injuries' on the weekend, some will miss the match through 'general soreness' - this is natural, and in reality these players would probably not be in the right condition to play against Qatar anyway.

This is why what Pim has done will work: when the inevitable occurs and many of the European based Socceroos do not arrive in Australia next Monday, Pim will be prepared - he has 20 A-league players ready for the contest. If 10-12 players arrive from Europe, in good condition and are ready to play against Qatar - then that is perfect. However if many players arrive tired, jet-lagged and ill-prepared for the game, then Pim has a whole squad of A-league players ready to step up. This will ensure a healthy mix of match-fit A-league players, and European based players who will add a technical 'edge' to the Socceroos side. You will not see a Socceroos side that looks slow, tired, unfit or unprepared next Wednesday - you will see a side in great condition, with a real attacking edge. This is the blueprint, that I believe will be used for years to come as we attempt to qualify for big international tournaments. What Pim has done has, I believe, has solved the problems we have over the past few years with no-shows and ill-prepared Socceroo teams. Whether he rates the A-league or not, I congratulate Pim on how he has approached next weeks game - let's just hope the result is the one we are looking for...