(Headline Photo Credit: Home United Football Club)
With a major overhaul in the competition structure of Asia’s second-tier club competition the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup this year, Southeast Asian club football enters into a new realm of uncertainty.
Gone were the past 13 years where regional clubs would regularly engage with their counterparts from Hong Kong, India and Maldives on a regular basis. Instead, they will now have to be content with competing among themselves in the early rounds of the competition.
Tournament organisers the AFC hopes the revamp of the AFC Cup will narrow the gulf in standards between the regular participating nations and minnows in each of the five zones. Under the new format, clubs will first battle for zonal honours before progressing to fight for the main prize.
As a result of the changes, Southeast Asia sees a record entry of 11 clubs in the group stage, eclipsing the previous record of 10 entered from 2012 to 2015. The inclusion of the qualifying playoffs in the zone for the first time raises the total number of participating regional clubs to 13.
With the conclusion of the Asean zone group stage, AseanBola analyses whether the regional club scene has benefitted from the tournament revamp.
NEW AFC CUP FORMAT EXPLAINED
Unlike previous recent eight-group editions where the top two from each pool advance into the knockout rounds, the navigation towards AFC Cup glory has become more convoluted in 2017.
In Southeast Asia’s case, three groups of four were formed (although the withdrawal of Laotian champions Lanexang United saw one group reduced to three teams), with the group winners and best runners-up advancing into the zonal semi-finals.
Two knockout rounds in home-and-away legs will determine the eventual winners. Apart from the cash prize of USD 100,000, the zonal champions will battle with the winners from Northeast, Central and South Asia for a place in the grand final.
There is a major economical motivation behind the early rounds being confined within the regional zones. Travelling around the vast Asian continent is not a trivial exercise. While getting to major international cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai is straightforward, flying into out-of-the-way areas is a test of financial and logistical constraints.
In some cases, that will involve multiple flights, both domestic and international, just to reach the final destination, taking up more than a day’s travel in the process. For clubs, even AFC travel subsidies might not be sufficient to cover the costs, especially with the lack of major financial incentives in the AFC Cup.
Hence keeping the travel within the region in the early rounds, the AFC hopes clubs will be more motivated to compete without the need for extra time (and finances spent) for climate acclimatisation. How has this turned out for the participating Southeast Asian teams?
KEEPING WITHIN ASEAN: A WORK IN PROGRESS?
With the remaining regional teams whittled down to four from the initial 13 at the start of the playoff rounds, competition has been intense in the battle for the zonal semi-final spots, particularly for the one slot among the three group runners-up.
Prior to the final group match day, a few teams remained in the hunt to progress into the next round. 2015 AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta’zim found the going much tougher this time with a tough challenge from Global Cebu of the Philippines.
The regional flag bearers barely scrapped through at the expense of Vietnamese side Hanoi FC, owing their good fortune to previous group results in their favour compared to the other two runners-up.
The Pinoy sides Global and Ceres Negro closed the gap between them and Johor as they clinched their respective groups with ease. Not even the delay of the launch of the professional Philippines Football League until early this month could hamper their focus on excelling in Asia so far.
While there was overall increased competitiveness among the competing sides in the group stage, the gulf of standards between the established regulars and tournament newcomers like Boeung Ket Angkor of Cambodia and Myanmar’s Magwe was evident. The duo rarely got going as they were out of contention before the penultimate round of games and eventually finished several points behind Global and Johor.
ABSENCE OF THAILAND AND INDONESIA RENDERS ASEAN ZONE INCOMPLETE
As much as the revamp of the AFC Cup is about getting the minnows more involved in continental club football since the dissolution of the AFC President’s Cup after 2014, it is also aimed in getting the regions to up their game as a collective.
With Philippines’ rise and Johor’s regional hegemony challenged, it appears to be the case for Southeast Asian club football. Following Cambodia’s maiden appearance in the group stage through Boeung Ket, only minnows Brunei Darussalam and Timor Leste are yet to field a club in the competition’s 14-year history.
However, the absence of Indonesia and Thailand in the 2017 edition has left a significant void in the region. Clubs from the two member nations had contributed significantly in Southeast Asia’s rich history in the AFC Cup, with Indonesian club Persipura Jayapura, and Thai clubs Muangthong United and Chonburi reaching the semi-finals this decade.
While the club scene was rebuilding in Indonesia following the lifting of Indonesia’s suspension from world football activities, strict AFC quota distribution and eligibility in club competition according to member associations’ rankings prevent the Thais from participating in the AFC Cup.
As Thailand has at least one automatic spot in the AFC Champions League group stage, its clubs are not allowed to drop down into the AFC Cup even when they are eliminated at different stages of qualifying. This meant Sukhothai and Bangkok United saw their Asian dreams ended prematurely following elimination in the playoffs.
With Johor’s significant progress in the competition in the most recent editions, Malaysia will be potentially set to join Thailand in having an automatic place in the financially lucrative Champions League group stage from 2019. The likely promotion of a regular participating member nation will deprive Southeast Asia of at least a competitive Malaysian team in the AFC Cup.
Club football in the region will remain poorer for fewer nations involved in the AFC Cup, unless the AFC is able to further refine country allocation and system such that members who have history in participating in both AFC Champions League and AFC Cup are eligible to be involved in the group stages of both.