In May I had the pleasure of watching a club that is, in my opinion, one of Asia’s strongest, a surefire candidate to progress to the latter stages of the AFC Champions League.
A club in fine balance with a goalkeeper who is being tracked by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. A series of solid defenders with a fantastic reading of the game. A classic ‘game breaking’ number ten. Two old-fashioned wingers and a goal-scoring centre forward.
A side that’s won its domestic competition seven times in the past eight seasons and one that’s been a finalist in an Asian club tournament for the last six years.
Just don’t expect Dordoi Bishkek to win the ACL anytime soon.
It’s pretty hard when you’re not allowed to enter.
The AFC has done a fantastic job in promoting and developing the Champions League as the elite tier of club football on the continent and some of the changes made this week have been logical and well-received.
These include moves to play the Round of 16 over two legs and an amendment that allows for simultaneous kickoffs for the final group stage matches, yet there remains a series of anomalies that need to be seriously looked at.
None more so than the system which denies clubs such as Dordoi the right to participate.
This week the AFC announced a new ‘points system’ for member associations (MAs) and clubs wanting to enter future editions of the tournament that involves a score out of 1000 based on such factors as technical standards, business models and media coverage. The most recent analysis done by the AFC found that only three nations – Japan, Qatar and Uzbekistan – meet the full criteria.
Much of the analysis though is lacking in detail and logic. Qatar, a nation whose league is poorly attended and where until recently, tickets were free, scored 50 out of 100. Meanwhile Australia registered only 60 points despite having one of the best average attendances of all Asian leagues.
Indonesia, where second-division matches often attract five-figure crowds, was awarded only 37 points.
Korea Republic scored only 33 out of 50 for the stadium requirement section despite a large number of K-League venues being used for the 2002 World Cup and generally the venues being of an exceptional standard.
How are these decisions reached?
The other problem is that by then allocating a bulk of spots to those leagues it leaves the developing nations behind.
Nations such as Kyrgyzstan where Dordoi is the only professional club – the only club with an owner prepared to fund and back it. But for what reward - a perpetual place in the third-tier AFC President’s Cup where it is so superior to the other sides in the tournament that it’s not funny?
When I saw it in group stage action recently it won its three matches, scoring 17 and conceding three.
Here, as in many other developing nations, the handful of well funded and well-run clubs are weighed down by the rest of the pack.
Hence there’s no Kyrgyz representative but we have four clubs from Uzbekistan. A nation where, last year aside, there’s been only two clubs competing for the league.
There are four direct spots for Qatar but just one for Thailand and none at all for Indonesia – both genuine football-loving nations.
As we’ve seen in Europe what also happens is that most of the clubs who have won the tournament have done so without actually being the champion of their own league.
In fact, over the ten years of the ACL only three (Al Ain in 2003, Al Ittihad in 2004 and Urawa in 2007) have won it after qualifying by being their league’s domestic title-holder.
Al Sadd last season went all to the way to title after coming through the playoffs.
So, why can’t the AFC implement a system similar to that at UEFA, where every single champion club, regardless of its league’s relative strength, gets a chance to qualify?
Sure, maybe clubs from Mongolia or Bhutan may struggle to qualify, but the stars from Bishkek will be licking their lips at the chance to take on the ‘big boys.’
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