Monday, November 15, 2010

Time for re-think on ACL Final

They say you must learn to crawl before you can walk. It is a saying the folk at The AFC would be well advised to take on board.

The final of the 2010 AFC Champions League was played on the weekend at the National Stadium in Tokyo – between a team from South Korea and a team from Iran.

Whilst The AFC is to be commended for their work in reshaping the AFC Champions League, it’s time for a re-think on the neutral venue for the final.

The neutral venue works in Europe – distances are smaller, the competition is entrenched in the Football culture and travel is significantly cheaper – but in Asia that is not the case.

The AFC have got lucky, somewhat, in the last two years by the fact that two Korean sides have played in the final. The distances between the two countries aren’t that great.

Their opponents, however, have quite a distance to travel.

In 2009, Al-Ittihad, based out of the Saudi town of Jeddah, had to travel 9500km for the final in Tokyo. To put that in perspective, that is further than a trip from London to Los Angeles and almost the equivalent of a London-New York round trip.

It wasn’t much better this year either when Zob Ahan had to travel 7900km to Tokyo.

Compare that to Europe where the furthest a team, and consequently their supporters, have travelled for a final (in the last three years) is 2400km from London to Moscow in 2008. That’s roughly the same as Melbourne to Cairns.

Not only is it a disadvantage for the players, it’s a major disadvantage for the fans. Air travel can be relatively cheap across Europe, with any number of low-cost carriers to ferry you between the major cities.

Again, this isn’t the case in Asia. And this is the major reason why The AFC must return the final to a two-legged affair.

The fans are the ones who support the AFC Champions League, and this year they did so in increasing numbers.

Yet when it comes to the final, only a lucky few can afford to make the trip to Tokyo. Not the least because the finalists are only decided a few weeks prior.

The AFC Champions League has made many advancements over the last few years, yet getting fans through the gate continues to prove difficult.

Why then are The AFC taking away the opportunity for the fans to see the final live and expose a new audience to the wonders of the tournament?

It’s fair to assume that both Seongnam are Zob Ahan would have attracted well above their average throughout the tournament (5033 and 6949 respectively) had they had the chance to host a leg of the final.

The final of the AFC Champions League had always been a two-leg affair until 2009 when The AFC opted for a single-leg model to be played at a neutral venue.

Whilst noble in its endeavour, the AFC Champions League just isn’t at the level for a single-leg, neutral venue final to work.

The AFC is taking the AFC Champions League to a new world of professionalism and it is clearly going to take time to grow and prosper. Perhaps in 25-30 years when it has had a chance to do so a single-leg final may work.

But for the time being in the best interests of the tournament and fans, the final must return to the two-leg format.

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