The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League concluded Saturday at the National Stadium in Tokyo with a thrilling 2-1 win for the Pohang Steelers of South Korea over Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. The Pohang Steelers are the first club in AFC history to win four Champions League titles, and are taking home the champions prize money of $1.5 million, and an additional $730,000 in travel subsidies and awards for wins in earlier stages of the competition. While this prize money is much less than the payouts for the European Champions League (€7 million for the champions and€2.4 million for playing in the group stages) it is rather significant in the world of Asian football. For the 2008 edition of the AFC Champions League, the competition had a budget of only $4 million, this amount was increased to around $20 million this year, with $14 million of that amount going to pay off of prize money and travel subsidies. In quintupling their budget, the AFC has made strives to make the competition more attractive to both teams and fans, which had previously considered the AFC Champions League a secondary competition, especially in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia which already had highly competitive professional leagues. It is curious to see what this influx of money will do for the AFC Champions League in the future, and whether they can continue to grow the competition.
In an earlier post, I had discussed UEFA imposing a ban on teams entering Champions League if they are in debt. This was met with a variety of reactions across Europe. However, the AFC has already imposed such restrictions and some additional criteria in order to control the pool of contestants which are allowed to enter the AFC Champions League competition. Starting this year, the AFC expanded the pool of teams from 28 to 32, however, they also imposed rules limiting each country to a maximum of four teams, with additional restrictions examining the financial strength, competitiveness, and marketability of both leagues and clubs in the competition. The actual rankings system is found: here (warning, it is a big PDF). And a breakdown of the rankings can be found here. One will notice that Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China are all high in the rankings and received four spots for teams from their domestic league, while Australia was penalized for having “poor governance” and thus received only two spots. Looking at the breakdown of teams which made it to the Round of 16 provides further insight on the AFC rankings and the competitive balance within the AFC. Japan and Saudi Arabia each had all four of their teams make it to the Round of 16, with South Korea having 3 of its teams make it out of the group stages. Notably, China which had 4 spots, could not get a single club into the final 16, while Australia, which had only 2 slots in possibly the two toughest groups managed to get one team through to the Round of 16. The rankings which the AFC has put out does take into consideration the strength of the leagues from which they choose teams to put on the field, but this is only 1/5th of their final ranking score. In essence, there seems to be a breakdown in the fairness of the competition, as it now focuses equally on how well the AFC can market teams, and how high attendance levels are in each country. While the AFC may have a model which may help them succeed financially in the long-run, the question which seems to arise is whether the ranking system is fair, and if it needs to be adjusted. The AFC will meet again in 2010 to re-rank countries, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan on the table yet to change the formula through which countries are ranked. I fear we will never again see a day in the AFC where small teams like Thai Farmers Bank will win the Champions League title as they did in back-to-back years in the mid 1990’s.
Despite the recession hitting some countries in Asia rather hard, there does seem to be a lot of money being thrown around by Asia this year in regards to football. As I have already discussed the AFC has upped the prize money in their competition. Additionally, Birmingham City of the Premier League was bought by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung in the last few days, making 11 of the 20 clubs in the Premier League either being owned or partially owned by foreign investors. Notably, Birmingham City, Manchester City, and Portsmouth are now all owned by investors from Asia (including the Middle East). Southeast Asia is also making several strong pushes towards hosting the World Cup. The Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) composed of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei have made a joint bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Football seems to be bigger than ever in Asia.
Finally, a piece of strange football news from the land of the rising sun. Kawasaki Frontale, a club based near Tokyo look to be well on their way to winning their first J League title ever. However, all chances of a double eluded them when they lost to an understrength Tokyo F.C. in the Nabisco Cup finals. At the award ceremony the players were clearly unhappy, pulled off their medals after receiving them, refused to shake hands with VIP’s, and further condemned for chewing gum while doing all of this. The club was ordered last week to return the 5.5 million yen prize money for being runner-up in the competition because of this unsportsmanlike behavior. A severe backlash in the Japanese media has publicly ridiculed and criticized the team. However, the team was told today they could keep the money, yet one player received a one game suspension for chewing gum and the team’s vice-president was forced to take a 10 percent pay cut for three months because of this incident. I’d like to see the NFL or MLB try to do that to a team executive the next time we see some athlete chewing gum and refusing to shake hands with sponsors.