The Asian Champions League beganthis weekend, with a full slate of group round matches. John Duerden has previewed some of the main themes of the competition elsewhere on this site, but in this article I want to look at some of the issues that relate specifically to Japanese teams taking part in the ACL, as well as perceptions of the tournament in Japan. The first article I ever wrote about Asian club competition was posted on my website, the Rising Sun News, way back in 2001, several years before the AFC launched the current tournament under the name "AFC Asian Champions League." I believe that Asia is too big, and club finances too small to allow a tournament such as the ACL to be really successful. Barring major changes in either the format or the timing, clubs will always have to choose between success in the ACL and domestic performance. Indeed, for those teams that fail to progress beyond the first round, the financial and physical burdens of taking part can even damage a club's long-term success. More than a few people (myself included) view Tokyo Verdy's participation in the 2006 edition of the ACL as a leading factor in that clubs subsequent financial deterioration, and its relegation to permanent second-tier status.
Nevertheless, over the past few years the organizers have made efforts to improve the tournament, and to ease the burden on participating teams. A great deal of effort and international cooperation has transformed the ACL into a tournament that enjoys worldwide respect. The major shortcomings, though still not eliminated, have at least been reduced. Due to the sheer geographic size of Asia, and the scale of income that club teams in most Asian leagues generate, the ACL will probably never become as central to football culture in Asia as the UEFA Champions League is to football in Europe. However, it still has the potential to become a respected and valued tournament… IF the organizers continue working to to resolve remaining problems. Based on preseason preparations for the ACL, as well as the results of first-round matches, here are a few lessons which fans, clubs and organizers should consider.
1. Most people in Japan would be unable to watch the ACL even if they wanted to
If the ACL is to really "catch on" in Asia, one of the most serious barriers that will have to be overcome is the lack of publicity and visibility in key markets. On this point, Japan poses the biggest challenge. Clubs are still having difficulty drawing fans to their home games. There are exceptions, but J.League teams often draw smaller crowds to ACL contests than they do to domestic cup competitions. The real problem, though, is the fact that only hardcore J.League fans are even aware that the ACL is taking place.
Because of the channels the ACL is televised on, it is easier for someone in North America to watch ACL matches on TV than it is for someone in Japan -- Asia's second-largest market. It goes without saying that unless casual fans can see ACL matches live, it will never gain popularity.
2. Officiating standards remain poor
A lack of competent match officials has been a problem for Asian football for years, and most domestic leagues have more serious problems with this issue than the ACL. Nevertheless, it is hard for fans to take the ACL seriously if the outcome of matches (and the tournament as a whole) seems to hinge on the actions of referees rather than the performance of teams and players. Naturally there are going to be calls that - while clearly incorrect - cannot be blamed on the officials. A perfect example waｓ the penalty kick awarded to Leonardo in the Yokohama Marinos-Jeonbuk Hyundai contest. Replays showed that Leonardo was guilty of simulation, but it is hard to blame the referee for being fooled. What is much harder to excuse is the sort of "game management" seen in the match between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Beijing Guoan. For 90 minutes, Beijing was allowed to play a very physical style of football, with defenders crashing into the back of Sanfrecce players time after time as they received the ball, and the referee waving play on. Then, with 30 seconds left in regulation time, Beijing's Darko Matic collided with Toshihiro Aoyama on a play that looked no more serious than many of the earlier collisions… and he was sent off on a straight red card! Even the Sanfrecce players seemed to be shocked by the call.
And then you have games like the Kawasaki Frontale - Guizhou Renhe brouhaha. The less I say about it, the better. Readers should simply watch it themselves, and make up their own mind whether or not this sort of thing is a good advertisement for Asian football. Fortunately, none of the players sustained injuries that looked too serious. Nevertheless, if the AFC really wants to convince football fans to embrace the ACL, they need put a quick and permanent end to spectacles such as that one.
3. On occasion, J- vs K-League matches can be truly spectacular
No matter how disappointed one might be about the negative aspects of ACL play, there is no denying the excitement and entertainment that is generated when J.League and K-League rivals face off in a closely matched, high-tempo contest. The Tuseday evening contest between Pohang Steelers and Cerezo Osaka offered a glimpse of what the ACL COULD be if the organizers take steps to address the problems I have mentioned above. The standard of play, the speed and intensity of the action, and the closely matched quality of the two teams resulted in 90 minutes of completely enthralling football -- a contest that was truly worthy of the name "Champions League."
4. Frontale seems to be taking the ACL seriously; the other clubs... not so much
Of the four J.League teams that took part in the ACL this week, Kawasaki Frontale seemed to be the most serious about progressing beyond the pool round. Despite a standard of play (and officiating) that might be considered a bit too rough in an international rugby contest, the Frontale players refused to be intimidated. Coach Yahiro Kazama fielded a full-strength lineup, and left his best players in even when there were signs that the physicality was getting out of hand. Yokohama Marinos and Cerezo Osaka also seemed to be making a full effort, but both coaches did leave a few of the presumed "first team" members out of the lineup. This was understandable, since both were playing on the road, and have tough schedules (Yokohama played against Sanfrecce Hiroshima last weekend; Cerezo faces them this weekend). However, if there are similar omissions in the March 11-12 round, it might suggest that these teams are putting greater priority on domestic success.
As for Sanfrecce, the squad that coach Hajime Moriyasu fielded was sufficiently competitive to dispel concerns that the Purple Archers would ignore the ACL as completely as they did last season. Nevertheless, the absence of Hwang Seok-ho, Yojiro Takahagi, Kohei Shimizu and the two Morisaki brothers from the starting lineup (all but Hwang were omitted from the squad altogether) suggests that Sanfrecce is once again putting its main focus on domestic titles, rather than on the Asian competition.
5. Frontale could be a title candidate; Cerezo also looks sharp
The chippy character of Kawasaki's game against Guizhou makes it a bit hard to evaluate the Blue Dolphins' true prospects in the ACL this year. However, of the four J.League teams involved, they did seem to be the most committed. Cerezo showed high technical quality as well, but there were a few indications that they might not have the grit and physicality to make it all the way to the final stages of the competition. Few people really expected much from Sanfrecce, despite the pre-game platitudes players and coaches made, about "giving a 100 percent effort." The greatest disappointment, though, was the poor showing by Yokohama Marinos. I mentioned in my preseason forecast that the Marinos defensive unit might be approaching its expiration date, but I did not expect to see the Seagulls concede two goals from the run of play in each of their first two games. Perhaps the team is just off to a shaky start, and will tighten up their defence as the season proceeds. Nevertheless, based on the team's results over the past five days, they would be wise to focus on J.League success this season. They do not appear to have the qualities needed to go far in the Asian Champions League.