When talking about Asian football, the southern region is often overlooked with the giants of the east and west taking most of the trophies, money and accolades but with a population of over 1.5 billion people, there is clearly huge potential in South Asia.
If plans to organise and introduce a champions league for clubs in the area actually come to fruition, it could be a major step in the right direction.
The idea is not a new one and not just because it would borrow heavily from the original European version. It almost happened two years ago, but there is a genuine desire this time to see something happen.
It would be good for clubs in the region as they will get to face international opposition
“It would be good for clubs in the region as they will get to face international opposition,” the CEO of India’s I-League Sunando Dhar told Al Jazeera.
“Other than India, not many South Asian countries can do so. International competition will make the clubs better which improves the football standards as a whole.”
Even India does not have automatic representation in the Asian Champions League. The other members of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives and Bhutan – are even further away from the continent’s showpiece tournament which has, until now, been a preserve of west and east Asia with a smattering of spice from Thailand and Australia.
Even the second-tier AFC Cup, held for ‘Developing nations” is out of bounds for all except India and Maldives. That leaves the AFC President’s Cup, for “emerging countries” such as Taiwan and Turkmenistan. Playing regular club games against neighbours and rivals could complement the existing competitions nicely and provide more exposure to international football.
That is especially important in South Asia and as well as giving the club scene a boost, it would give local players much needed experience.
Even national teams struggle to play games outside of the region and sometimes struggle to play games at all. This lack of international knowhow has long been a major complaint from a whole succession of national team coaches.
SAFF president Kazi Salahuddin is a keen advocate of the plan and has been since taking the regional hotseat in 2009. Turning it from an idea, even a well-received one, into reality has not been easy however.
“The club championship is one of my biggest dreams,” Salahuddin said last month.
“In Europe, it is the most popular competition. There are two big problems, however, sponsorships and India,” although the Bangladesh official added, “Sponsorship is something that can be arranged.”
Dhar agrees with that sentiment. “Sponsorship should not be a problem as SAFF had quite a few sponsors at the SAFF Cup though it has to be said that sponsorship is always a key issue in the region and football falls behind cricket in that regard but it could be an avenue to explore.”
And he also agrees that India has been, and continues to be, the main stumbling block. Without India, there is no chance of any tournament. While the UEFA Champions League without, say, Germany, would feel strange and underwhelming, the tournament could continue. India being absent means it doesn’t happen.
“The main problem is finding a timeslot,” admits Dhar.
“With the weather conditions in this part of the world, there are always three or four months when it is hard to play football. And when you have the I-League taking place for six months then there is not much time left. India has not been able, in the past, to commit to a time slot and that is a problem that remains and that is a problem for SAFF to solve.”
“If the tournament is to happen it has to happen before August and before then is the rain and high temperatures. If they can find a slot then it will benefit everyone. It could be great for I-League clubs as they could use it as a warm-up before the I-league season. There is no doubt that clubs would like to participate in this.”
Instead of a season-long tournament, a short, sharp and concentrated event could be the way forward but a number of options are being discussed.
The most important point is that it happens in some shape or form. It could be the boost that South Asian club football needs.