The Champions League of the Asian Football Confederation is the ultimate club prize in Asia but is out of reach for most clubs, Ian Griffiths reports at Football Asia. Because of the lack of depth in elite club football in many Asian countries, the AFC enforces a three-tier ranking system which divides its 45 national associations into 'mature', 'developing' and 'emerging'. The clubs from these countries are then shoehorned into three respective competitions – the top 14 into the AFC Champions League; the next 14 into the AFC Cup; the rest into the AFC President’s Cup. However Griffiths argues that "a degree of fluidity" needs to be injected into the system.
Clubs from the likes of Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan all compete in the AFC Champions League. Few would argue that these countries make up the elite of Asian football, whether at national team or at club level. The argument only comes when you consider the other countries who are also rated ‘mature’ and therefore participate in the AFC Champions League: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Iraq and Syria.Griffiths notes that because the next review of the ranking system is not due until 2008, "clubs must wait nearly three years for a chance to measure their progress against some of the region’s best operators". He provides examples here.
Among the ‘developing’ countries are the likes of Malaysia, Singapore, India, Jordan, Lebanon and a host of others. Then there are clubs from ‘emerging’ associations - Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan and a handful of other aspirants.
There is no denying that a semblance of order is required from an administrative point of view. Equally, few would disagree that the champions of Bhutan have very little in common with, say, their counterparts in J-League or K.League. In fact, it is only right and proper that national associations (and the clubs who represent them) should be rewarded according to the success of their clubs in competitions over a given period.
According to the AFC, for nations to be considered worthy of mature status, they must tick three boxes. Firstly, standards must be to a suitably high level. Not only must sides be able to play competently, but they must also have adequate stadiums, training facilities and a recognised coaching structure firmly in place. Would-be AFC Champions League outfits must also compete in a recognisable domestic league. Finally, there must be a high degree of infrastructure within the club’s country. Transport links must be good and factors such as the proximity of an international airport and the frequency of flights to the country are also examined.
A glance at the various clubs competing at continental level would, using the AFC’s criteria, give us a good idea of which countries have three ticks alongside their names and those with work still to do. A closer inspection, however, reveals real flaws in the system, flaws which could easily be ironed out by allowing movement between the mature, developing and emerging nations.