(Headline Photo Credit: Johor Darul Ta’zim)

Despite another sobering campaign in the elite AFC Champions League (ACL), it was a different story for Southeast Asia in the 2015 AFC Cup. The region supplied its first-ever Asian club winners since the revamp of the Asian club competitions in 2004.

By defeating Tajikistan side FC Istiklol in the final on 31 October, Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) were the region’s first AFC Cup champions and became the first Southeast Asian side since the now-defunct Thailand side Thai Farmers Bank to achieve an Asian club silverware.

The Southern Tigers also broke the West Asian teams’ stranglehold in the second-tier Asian club competition since the tournament’s inauguration in 2004. Prior to their success, they became the first Southeast Asian side to break the semi-final ceiling to reach the final.

Before them, six other regional teams – Singapore clubs Home United and Geylang United in 2004, Vietnam side Binh Duong in 2009, Thailand outfits Muangthong United and Chonburi in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and Indonesia team Persipura Jayapura in 2014 – could only reach the heady heights of the last four before stumbling at that hurdle.

Among the participating Southeast Asian nations in this edition, Malaysia made remarkable progress as their representative clubs JDT and Pahang reached the last eight at the minimum. It was a far cry from editions past where Malaysian teams were merely content to be participants at the group stage, with their domestic Malaysia Cup holding greater priority than any Asian adventure.

That previously backward mentality has taken a significant shift, with the JDT revolution from 2013 forcing the other clubs to accelerate their rise in standards on and off the pitch at varying levels. Among the local clubs, Pahang rose up to the challenge with a strong core of promising locals and reliable imports to challenge JDT for local honours.

Their collective hunger to challenge themselves among the best in the AFC Cup has seen Malaysian teams taking the tournament more seriously. The accelerated shift in focus would serve these two teams well as Malaysia had their best overall showing in the competition.

JDT Show The Way to Asian Club Success

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Johor Darul Ta’zim Argentine striker Luciano Figueroa (right) in action during their quarter-final first leg match against Hong Kong side South China. (Photo Credit: South China AA)

For JDT, their continental exploits and eventual success boiled down to a combination of a strong squad of locals and imports, the tactical finesse of head coach Mario Gomez and good fortune. The Malaysian champions not only boasted several local internationals, they also had the defensive reliability of Brazilian centre-back Marcos Antonio and the experience of veteran Argentine striker Luciano Figueroa.

The quality and depth in the squad allowed them to dominate the group stage, but the arrival of former Valencia and Inter Milan assistant coach Gomez saw them take their continental play to another level. Singapore side Balestier Khalsa and Myanmar outfit Ayeyawady United were the regional teams to feel the impact of the Argentine’s tactical sharpening shortly after he left Hong Kong giants South China AA to take over the coaching reins in early May.

Their crisp attacking play in the other end of the pitch, with skipper Safiq Rahim and Figueroa dictating the tempo, often left opposing teams scrambling to reorganise their defences as the two JDT masterminds kept stretching play and made space for their colleagues to exploit with devastating effect.

Champions also have good fortune behind their success, and in JDT’s case they have that dose of luck to complement their skill and desire to succeed in Asian club football. In fact, make it two doses.

The first came in the competition quarter-final draw. Unlike the ACL where the remaining teams continue to be divided on the East-West divide, it is an open draw in the case of the AFC Cup. That means the possibility of an East Zone side meeting their West Zone counterparts is evens.

Drawing a Middle East or Central Asian side at this stage would equate to certain elimination as their technique and tactical know-how exceed those of the East Asian teams. Previous head-to-head records between East and West in the knockout rounds often end in the latter’s favour.

That was the fate JDT avoided in the last eight as they were drawn with Gomez’s former side. The head coach’s inside knowledge of the opponents played a part too as they overcame two tough legs and Figueroa’s red card in Hong Kong to become the seventh Southeast Asian side to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Cup.

With then-defending champions Al-Qadsia of Kuwait awaiting in the semi-finals, it was going to take a massive effort from the Southern Tigers to reach the final. The first leg at Kuwait City saw the Malaysia champions succumb 1-3, but a stroke of good fortune would befall them again ahead of the second leg in Johor.

Four days before the semi-finals second leg, Kuwait were banned by world football governing body FIFA for political interference in the administration of the game. That meant the Kuwaiti clubs were thrown out and thus allowing JDT to advance on walkover and meet their moment of destiny.

Pahang Break Group Stage Barrier, Show Promise in Quarter-finals

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Despite their exit to eventual runners-up FC Istiklol of Tajikistan on aggregate, Pahang (in yellow) keep plugging away in their quarter-final home leg. (Photo Credit: Pahang)

Although the other Malaysia representatives Pahang did not scale the heights, they had their best ever showing in their third AFC Cup appearance. Previously eliminated at the group stage in 2005 and 2007, the Tok Gajahs finished second behind South China to advance into the knockout rounds for the first time.

Like JDT, their passage into the last eight would arrive with a stroke of good fortune. More appropriately, a blessing in disguise in their case. Pahang made the U-turn for home in protest after Indonesian immigration authorities denied their foreigners entry.

The civil servants’ unilateral actions ensured that the round of 16 fixture between Persipura and Pahang would not proceed, eventually ending in a 3-0 walkover in favour of the latter following the AFC disciplinary review.

A congested fixture programme would undo Pahang’s journey in the AFC Cup quarter-finals as the fatigued Tok Gajahs succumbed to artificial turf conditions at Dushanbe in the first leg before making a valiant attempt in their 3-1 second leg win at Kuantan.

While their home heroics ended in vain, the tenacity and composure Pahang showed to compete in the tournament would have given the other local clubs hope that with the right investment and commitment to the playing personnel, following theirs’ and JDT’s footsteps in Asia will not be a distant dream.

Indonesia and Myanmar Maintain Representation in Knockout Rounds

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Ayeyawady United (in red) keep the Myanmar flag flying high as they maintain their country’s presence in the knockout rounds. (Photo Credit: Ayeyawady United)

While Malaysian clubs had an overall impressive showing, clubs from the rest of the region – with the exception of Singapore – put in creditable performances as a whole. Indonesia and Myanmar had teams who made it to the round of 16 before seeing their campaigns conclude at mid-year.

As was the case in previous seasons of participation, the Indonesian representatives – Persipura and Persib Bandung – maintained their quality at the group stage to advance into the next round. While the former were undone by a technicality, the latter still had work to do to bridge the gap between themselves and the best of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong following a 0-2 humbling to Kitchee at home in the first elimination round.

How their future teams could fare in AFC club competitions would be dependent on how quickly the country’s football administrators would be willing to work in lifting the FIFA-imposed suspensions that has seen the region’s most populous nation sidelined from international club and country competitions.

Since Myanmar’s entry into the AFC Cup in 2012, their clubs have benefitted from the international exposure gained playing against teams from the region and beyond. While debutantes Yadanarbon failed to make an impression in the group stage, Ayeyawady United kept up the tradition of having a Myanmar team in the octofinals before succumbing to an impressive JDT.

Singapore Disappoint; Learning Experience for Philippines and Myanmar

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Once AFC Champions League participants, Warriors FC (in blue) find the going tough against opposition such as Maziya (in yellow) as they end their campaign on a whimper. (Photo Credit: S.League/ Alson Ong)

AFC Cup regulars Singapore had little joy in the competition for the third consecutive edition as their representatives Balestier and Warriors were out of contention from the knockout rounds before the final match day at this stage.

With the S-League in decline without their best local players and local clubs unable to compete with their regional counterparts in sourcing for imports, teams struggled to be competitive against fast-improving nations in the second-tier Asian club competition.

First-time entrants Balestier were given a huge baptism of fire in their maiden foray into Asian club competition in a tough group that included eventual winners JDT and Kitchee. Their inexperience showed as they incurred five losses in six matches, but they gained their first and only points of the tournament with a 2-1 win over Indian side East Bengal.

The same could not be said of Warriors though. Once ACL participants and regular AFC Cup quarter-finalists, their campaign was dismal as they endured their worst record in the competition. Even Maldivian side Maziya grabbed six points home and away as the nine-time Singapore champions finished bottom of their group without a point.

Good learning experience for Philippines and Laos teams but extremely disappointing for Singapore. First round exits they suffered but the Philippines and Laos teams have no shame being their first time experiencing this competition, same with Singapore debutants Balestier Khalsa.

But former ACL participants Warriors were a massive disappointment as they finished an embarrassing last with all their group matches ending in losses. This is the third year in a row where a Singapore club failed to progress beyond the group stage.

The 2015 AFC Cup also saw Philippines and Laos make their first appearances in the competition through Global and Lao Toyota respectively. Unlike the Warriors, neither debutantes disgraced themselves. Global finished third in their group with a win against Yadanarbon, while Lao claimed three draws from Persib, Ayeyawady and New Radiant.

The experience and exposure gained from this level of competition would spur other clubs from these two Southeast Asian nations to push themselves to strive for a first-ever progression into the knockout rounds. Regular competition and strong support could push these countries to emulate the footsteps of the reigning champions if done right.