• Jubilant... Western Sydney Wanderers players thank their home fans after an ACL win. (Getty)
It may well be time to look at a radical overhaul of the AFC Champions League to prevent clubs treating it with utter contempt.
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9 May 2014 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 14 May 2014 - 4:32 PM

The Asian Football Confederation – or more correctly its marketing arm, World Sport Group, is known for being just a touch over-zealous when it comes to protecting the rights of its 'partners.’

So much so that at a recent Western Sydney Wanderers ACL match several members of the club’s staff were made to cover up – with black adhesive tape – a sponsor that wasn’t 'part’ of the continental tournament.

The fact that the offending party was a funeral service only added to the layer of irony because the competition the AFC is overseeing has hit new lows this season.

Never in the modern history of the ACL have so many clubs treated the tournament with so little respect in terms of the squads and starting sides they have used; the clear nadir being Chinese outfit Guizhou Renhe sending just 13 players (with no reserve goalkeeper) to the final group stage match against the Wanderers.

Long before that though virtually every club from Australia, China and Japan – and to a lesser extent – Korea – sent 'understrength’ sides to away matches.

Some clubs may dispute what constitutes 'first-choice’ or argue that the ACL provides a 'good opportunity’ to blood fringe or younger players but to my way of thinking the Champions League should be the pinnacle for clubs in the region – not viewed as a developmental tournament.

Can you imagine the reverse in Europe – Real Madrid playing its 'second’ side in the UEFA Champions League to focus on a domestic title?

That way of thinking just simply doesn’t exist for clubs that view themselves as 'big players’.

Remember the furore when Manchester United withdrew from the FA Cup to play in the FIFA Club World Cup in Brazil?

Australia's clubs – and others in the region - talk endlessly about wanting 'to qualify for Asia’ throughout the season yet, perversely, when they get there out come the youth and fringe players.

That’s what the National Youth League is for, not the AFC Champions League.

The time has come for the AFC to seriously look at what is happening to what should be the flagship competition; less pernicious officials spending hour upon hour removing labels off water bottles and covering up stadium signage and more time dedicated to ensuring the competition is not treated with contempt.

The good news is there will be changes for next year. The concern I have is that they may not be strong enough.

Already there was a tinkering around the edges this year.

Under a proposal driven by forward-thinking Jordanian administrator Prince Ali, there was a greater number of play-off spots opened up for 'emerging nations’ – so the likes of Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, India, Vietnam and Hong Kong all had clubs enter the preliminary stage of the competition.

Clubs that, by and large, were desperate to reach the group stage and compete with the 'big boys’.

Yet when the group stage arrived we still had bloated numbers from perennial under-achievers China and Qatar as well as far too many slots for other nations – Saudi Arabia and Japan among them.

The current criteria used to determine the number of slots available to each 'Member Association’ is based on a complex formula that places greater importance on 'off-field’ areas – marketing capabilities, media reach and the strength of stadium lighting among them.

From next year this will be totally overhauled with performance-driven criteria the key determinant in deciding how many clubs can qualify from each country and region.

The proposals include a fixed number of spots for the associations ranked one to six with the following six member associations only granted a single play-off spot.

Hence the need for a greater, unified, approach from each individual association.

China, which had only one of four clubs progress from the group stage, and Australia, with just one from three, would presumably slip far down the rankings – and jeopardise participation in future years.

This is certainly a step in the right direction but it will conceivably hurt those clubs that are ambitious.

The other remaining problem though is how to stop clubs sending weakened squads to away games?

Fine them?

For many with more money than sense that won’t make the slightest impact.

After the Guizhou match I was introduced to the owner of the club, property developer Dai Xiuli - who is one of the richest women in China.

So rich that her English husband apparently wanted to divorce her because he couldn’t deal with the wealth!

This is a woman who could buy Parramatta with her loose change, so what’s the point of fining her for sending a side with just one goalkeeper to Sydney's west?

It may well be time to look at a radical overhaul of the competition where if you persist with a group stage then all the matches are played in a pool tournament in fixed countries.

This is how the region’s third-tier competition, the President’s Cup, is played and it has merit – a fixed 10 day or two-week period in a country where all the group matches are staged and the teams for the knockout stage determined.

Other than that it’s perhaps time to revert to the original format of the very first, pre-ACL edition of the competition.

The 1967 Asian Champions Club tournament was a straight-forward knockout event and there is a lot of merit to looking at implementing such a system.

There will be precious little 'squad rotation’, greater intensity in the home-and-away match-ups and hopefully greater supporter and media interest in a tournament that has become increasingly stale.

Just don’t try and resuscitate one of those original clubs - the Korean side, Tungsten Mining. They’ll probably have to tape up their company logo.