We Still Need to Prove Ourselves in Asia
Two Australian teams played in the 2017 Asian Champions League last night.
If you didn’t realise this, you are not alone.
It is hardly ground breaking stuff to lament that the premier club competition of our region doesn’t seem to get much traction with the wider public - or even with football fans for that matter. People such as Mike Tuckerman and several others have written pieces expressing their frustration at the malaise shown in this country towards Asian Football in general, and for experts like that, I can’t imagine how baffling it must be.
Perhaps it is because the FFA Cup still has some of its ‘new toy shine’ that its cult like following in the football community has managed to outdo the glamour of the ACL, or perhaps it is that the FFA Cup goes a small way to repairing the links with the old guard of football in this country that has seen it rise in stature on the local football landscape. Whatever the reasons, it is hard to deny that the people are far more engaged with it than the Asian Champions League.
What it shows is that there is enough of an appetite for more football in Australia that people are happy to go to suburban grounds in the middle of the week in winter to watch semi-professional teams play. So we can rule out any sort of over saturation factor when trying to account for the lack of interest.
There are plenty of reasons for it, but 2 reasons that I don’t think get talked about enough are –
The ACL feels too impersonal, and most importantly, the perception of the Asian teams is not aligned with the reality.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest aspects of the FFA Cup is buying some Cevapi at Bonnyrigg, or sitting in a dilapidated stand that is struggling to handle the capacity in Leichhardt, or even just watching a couple of old rivals take on each other at Knights Stadium to get through to the final 8 teams in the country makes for a fantastic night. The volunteer canteen ladies, the closeness of the pitch, the fact that a 3000 crowd feels electric. The standards required to host an ACL match make this experience literally impossible, and logistically unrealistic anyway. Mid-week football in this country very rarely draws a 5 figure crowd, and when these games are played in 30k+ seated stadiums, there is no way for it to feel anything but cold. There are little to no rivalries yet for Australian teams in the ACL (not that this is anyone’s fault) so we lose another aspect that can help bring a stadium to life.
All of these things are out of the clubs’ control, but anyone denying that they are factors is living in an alternate universe. The A League is regularly accused of being plastic and having no soul and those teams playing in the ACL take that to a new level. It is just an unchangeable reality at the moment.
With everything that I have witnessed, heard or discussed about the Asian Champions League from the time I stood in a dingy basement of the Agincourt Hotel and watched Sydney FC become the first Australian team to win a match in the competition, to last night’s full time whistle at Suncorp, the one consistent thing that I can say is that we (as a collective of football fans) love to pretend we know about Asian Football, but in truth we mostly have no idea.
In a similar way that we become a nation of horse racing experts on the first Tuesday in November, if your team has a match coming up against a team from China, you find that most of the supporters suddenly have an opinion on the state of Chinese football and the strengths and weaknesses of their players and teams. The truth is that the majority of it is based on generalisations and reputations (with a very generous dose of plain old ignorance).
My first memories of the Asian Champions League in 2007 are that the majority of the teams we would be playing had wage bills that dwarfed ours, and that the Australian teams would be up against it to win a game or two let alone get out of the group stage (which at that time meant you HAD to finish first). Then a funny thing happened. Sydney FC went through their group stage with only a single loss (in atrocious conditions in Indonesia on a terrible pitch to a lesser team) and actually made quite a showing for themselves against what would turn out to be the eventual Asian Champions that season in Urawa Red Diamonds. They also drew an average crowd of over 15,000 people for their home games. Sure, the competition was still shiny and new to us at that stage, but the underdog causing some upsets always helps an Australian back their team.
Then the following year saw an Adelaide United team, that were coming off a season where they won just 6 games and finished 3rd from the bottom of the A-League table, not only get out of the Group Stage, but actually make it all the way to the final!
So the question started to be asked – How good can these Asian teams really be? If a team that can’t make the finals can finish second in all of Asia, this competition is perhaps not the prestigious competition we were led to believe it was.*
This lack of a need to prove ourselves against the supposed great teams of our region caused the competition to lose some of its intrigue and the fact that one of the league’s lesser teams was able to make the final in only our second season in the competition made it lose some of the shine.
But over the 10 years we have been competing in the competition the results say otherwise.
Only Adelaide and Western Sydney have won more games than they have lost in Asia and neither of those have won more than 50% of their total games.**
Overall as a nation we have only won 34% of all of our games in Asia
Against the 3 nations that the large majority of our games have been played against, we have the following results –
Wins – 12
Draws – 8
Losses – 25
Against South Korea
Wins – 11
Draws – 18
Losses – 17
Wins – 18
Draws – 13
Losses – 16
That record against Japan is shocking and brings even further into focus the fact that Japanese players are almost never considered when teams look for overseas talent.
It was only last month that Adelaide United Chairman Greg Griffin made it clear that he thought bringing in Asian players would compromise the product of the A League, and his views were accused of being insular. However they may have been even more insular than we initially thought. Perhaps he hasn’t even looked outside of Adelaide. Perhaps his views are based on the fact that the Reds themselves actually hold 5 of the 12 wins that teams from Australia have had over Japanese clubs and they also hold the most number of wins in the Asian Champions League for an Australian club in the nation’s history.
Perhaps if he opened up that view a little further he may have the chance to realise that the same stats quoted in the above paragraph mean that the remaining teams in the A League have only won 7 of their 36 match ups with Japanese clubs. Given the current situation that United are in, anchored to the bottom of the table in a disastrous title defence, it may be worth having a look there for a player or two that can win a game against these other A League sides.
The fact remains that in spite of the Wanderers’ heroics a few years ago and the Asian Cup win by the Socceroos, we still have a long way to go in Asian football to become a true power and if we don’t get behind our teams in this competition, it simply won’t happen.
*It is unfortunate timing and very little can be done about it, but it really doesn’t help that you qualify for the tournament almost 12 months before actually playing in it. The nature of the salary capped A League means that the team that qualifies and the team the actually PLAYS in the ACL are often very different. It also stops any momentum that may have been gained by the fans from their team’s big A League season. But again, nothing we can do about that.
**Interestingly, they are also the only 2 teams that average less than 1 goal per game against. Not a revelation, but Defence really wins ACL games – possibly another factor impacting the popularity of the games.