When Japan’s Urawa Reds met Saudi football behemoth Al Hilal in the showpiece event of the Asian club football calendar, the Asian Champions League final, many lamented the familiarity that this conclusion has kindled among followers of Asian club football. For the past six seasons, the ACL crown has gone to a side from the J1 League or to Al Hilal.
It’s important to note that the level of investment has seen a spike in the general interest in football in Saudi Arabia. Evident of this, research conducted by Twitter in 2020 showed that 73% of Saudis using Twitter, do so with the purpose partly being to follow football. This incline in interest – exacerbated by the 2022 World Cup in neighbouring Qatar – has been followed by a surge in domestic football investment by Saudi’s infamous public investment fund (PIF).
In 2022, Financial Times reported that the PIF had secured sponsorship agreements that amounted to around $2.3 billion and that “most of the money is for domestic football.” Unlike most sovereign wealth funds, the PIF is seen as separate to the government but has to dual mandate to help further the Saudi economy by pursuing huge financial returns on their many investments. It is estimated that the PIF have assets under management that value up to $600 billion.
In addition to all of this, Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Al Nassr – and the huge contract he is playing under – underpins the power and sway that Saudi club football is now carrying. For context, Ronaldo’s annual salary at Al Nassr will exceed the total wage bill for half of the clubs in the English Premier League.
Crucially, European football is taking an approach to bring financial splurging under control. UEFA have announced that the degree to which clubs can spend their total revenue on transfers, wages and agent fees will decrease from 90% of the club’s total revenue to 70% in 2025.
This has led many to theorise about the potential long-term effects that the injection of capital in Saudi – and more broadly Asian football – will have on European clubs and players. As player wages in football are closely tied to revenues, increasing wages based on the demand of non-European clubs has the potential to diminish the quality of squads in European football which would then have a bigger impact on things like brand values, viewership, and, consequently, on-pitch results.
Are the AFC Promoting Competition or Limiting It?
Speaking to Martin Lowe, writer for The Asian Game, he gives an exclusive insight to Breaking the Lines into the AFC’s plans to reform to ACL, reducing the number of teams and creating a third tier of continental football – quite similar to UEFA’s introduction of the Europa Conference League. The ACL will be cut from the 40-club format down to 24 “elite clubs” that will compete more frequently with each other.
“The ACL is the bastardized son of a confederation that hasn’t sought to carve out its own future,” Martin tells BTL. “The obsession with what Europe does has held it back for too long and has been the main causation of this year-after-year fluctuation between formats and schedules.”
This is alluding to the glaring actuality of this reform; it is a shameless appropriation of the European model of the newly reformed Champions League. Less than a year after UEFA introduce a third tier of European club continental football with the Europa Conference League, the AFC introduce the same concept.
Additionally, this new format will result in more matches, increasing the likelihood of more drama and overall quality in the ACL, and these matches will be competed by Asia’s biggest clubs.
The Biggest Downside to This Format
One of the great running themes through the Asian Champions League, which is vastly different from the UCL, is the propensity for smaller clubs to cause huge upsets and therefore raise their own profiles immensely. In 2021, Tajikistan’s Istiklol proved this by beating Al-Hilal and progressing to the knockout stages, a historic achievement for Central Asian Football. “In the last couple of years we’ve seen great strides made by clubs in India, Tajikistan, Iraq, Hong Kong and Thailand,” says Martin.
This season there have been many examples of this development. Before 2021, no Indian side had ever competed in the ACL group stages, FC Goa ended this and while they impressed with their stick-to-itiveness and the brilliant performances by their young goalkeeper, Dheeraj Singh, they only amassed two points in the tournament and there was an undoubted chasm between the competitive level they could play to versus the level of their opposition.
Mumbai City, on the other hand, well and truly raised the bar for ISL sides competing in Asian club football this year. Their outstanding performances, under the coaching of English coach, Des Buckingham, led them to two victories in the ACL. The first, and by far most historic, win came against Iraqi side, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club) which finished 1-0. And despite the number of foreign players in the ISL that are helping raise the competitiveness of the league, it was Mumbai native Rahul Bheke who came up with the winner for his side in a momentous moment for Indian football.
“Regrettably, this expansion has coincided with the global pandemic which has been felt acutely by Asian football. The experience has been somewhat muted,” Lowe describes. “And sadly, AFC’s reform plans will reduce exposure of developing leagues to the confederation’s top-tier competition.”
This is the real tragedy of the shift in format. The exposure to these leagues will diminish, and therefore the gap between the top clubs in Asia and the rest will only widen with how far removed they are from one another. The danger is that we may not have another side from ASEAN or Central Asia pulling off an upset and disrupting these powerhouses, or at least the likelihood of that happening again will be significantly weakened.
What’s Next for the ACL?
Firstly, how this reform will pan out is yet to be seen. It’s obvious that the bigger clubs benefit the most from this but it does not mean that there are no successes and developments to be had. When asked about how ASEAN clubs can try to bridge the gap between themselves and the Japanese and Korean clubs who have shown themselves to compete very well in the ACL, Lowe says, “Co-operation, both within the region and across the continent has to be a priority. ASEAN clubs need to produce and market their players better.”
Once a route to Europe is established, the ecosystem starts to be self-fulfilling; motivation is improved and performances at club and international level develop, leaving the next generation with a better environment to grow into. The first step is to leave any self-interests at the door.”
This attitude could greatly benefit clubs from all over Asia for whom the dreams of the ACL is becoming less and less grounded in reality. Having an approach focused on engendering a spirit and an environment that young players can develop and that there is a pathway to improve and move onto bigger and better leagues is a success much more grounded in reality and is a far more rewarding success than that of the Saudi clubs’ vision of success, whereby huge injections of capital to buy publicity and notoriety, is king.
By: Louis Young / @FrontPostPod
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Hazem Bader / AFP