It’s time for Asia to take a leaf out of Europe’s book.
The Berlin Wall lasted over 28 years before it was torn down by people power.
The unloved barrier in Asian football has reached double figures but if the next leader of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) really wants to make his mark then he should remove the invisible but very real division in the Asian Champions League.
Any European team has an opportunity, however remote for some, to participate in the UEFA Champions league. Not so in Asia. Only ten nations out of 46 in the confederation have automatic representation. The tournament started in 2003 with a promise of raising standards, profile, excitement and revenue. As it enters its second decade, stuffiness is setting in.
UEFA allocates places to countries based on past performances on the pitch. In the AFC it is all about national leagues meeting off-the-pitch criteria – such as quality of stadia, administration and marketing. At least, that may have been the original vision but increasingly it has become more about the protection of vested interests.
Twenty of the 32 places are divided equally between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Japan, South Korea and China. Iran has three with six of the remaining nine going to UAE, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Australia. Teams from Thailand, UAE, Uzbekistan and Australia vied for the three play-off places.
Others want in. Prince Ali Al Hussein is the vice-president of FIFA and has been a vocal advocate for expansion. He may also be president of the Jordan FA, a potential beneficiary, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong in November when he emailed this writer to say: "Asian football should be inclusive rather than exclusive. I hope that fans of football across Asia will have the chance to finally experience the best potential on the pitch at the club level."
It is easier said than done. "Criteria are there for a reason," a high-ranking member of a major Asian federation told me recently. "The Champions league is there to promote the best of the Asian game and we strongly oppose any attempt to lower those standards."
Increasing the audience
It would also help in terms of profile. The AFC is notoriously lax in promoting its showpiece club tournament. It is not an easy job with Asian football fans often not fans of Asian football. Attendances, with a few notable exceptions in China and Iran, are largely underwhelming.
Opening the tournament would help. South-east Asia is a football-mad region of over 600 million yet it has just two Thai representatives. The national teams of Iraq, Jordan, Oman and Lebanon are good enough to be in the final ten in the final round of Asia’s 2014 World Cup qualification zone yet are not allowed in the continent’s showpiece event.
The whole of South and Central Asia (bar Uzbekistan) is barred. More exposure is needed and would be provided by making it accessible to over two billion more people. Not all 46 members should have an automatic spot but a route through the play-offs must be possible.
It is not all doom and gloom however. At last, the 2013 Asian edition has followed Europe in having a two-legged second round match, ending the cruel and quick winner-takes-all one-night stand of the past. The final has also doubled up - a solution seen as the best of imperfect options given the sheer size of the continent and the lack of culture of away travel among fans.
South Korean teams are often involved in such games. The country has ten continental titles to its name and has won three of the last four. Japanese teams have struggled of late to balance domestic and foreign commitments while China has not yet set the tournament alight.
Yet. Guangzhou Evergrande, Marcello Lippi’s big-spending team, reached the last eight last season and is aiming for the title this time around. Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor is a familiar presence in the latter stages.
On the opposite side of the draw – the first two rounds are divided geographically between west and east - as well as the usual Saudi and Iranian suspects such as Al Ittihad and Sepahan, most eyes will be on Al Ain. Ever since the team won the inaugural champions league in 2003, the record of UAE 's representatives has been dismal but the presence of Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan and the new star of West Asian football Omar Abdulrahman in midfield could change all that.
Such exciting talents are what the tournament needs on the pitch but off it, administrators in Asia could provide an equally important service by keeping politics and self-interest out of the Asian Champions League.
It’s time to follow Europe’s example, tear down the wall and let the wonderful diversity of Asian football be visible to all.