Why the AFC Champions League is wasted on Australia

It’s that time of year when the AFC Champions League begins – and Australia resumes its annual confusion about what the tournament actually means.

Bobo and Ninkovic

Bobo and Milos Ninkovic in action for Sydney Source: Getty Images

The press is puzzled. The public more so. Matches seem to arrive out of thin air; there’s virtually no marketing to publicize dates and times. Suddenly, there it is.

Those of us who do care about the competition feel like we’re in some sort of weird cult; a splinter group of a minority sect.

Perhaps no sporting event better reflects the stark reality of modern Australia than this tournament. When Asia is in town, in sport or otherwise, Australia offers token interest or turns away entirely. Take your pick.

Let’s be honest. Australians don’t get the Asian Champions League because they don’t get Asia.

It’s difficult enough for the dinky-di to distinguish east Asia from west Asia, let alone Shanghai from Suwon. Add in the round ball, a midweek fixturing and… what tournament were we talking about again? And why should I care?

It’s only the most important annual football competition in Asia, the continent we desperately wanted to be a part of – as it turns out, just so that we could say that we were a part of it (and pinch a World Cup slot).

Our clubs get so excited about qualifying for the ACL yet by the time it rolls around, they lose interest. That feeds directly to the fans. Inexplicably, it gets pegged as an unnecessary diversion.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Australians can be compelled to care about the ACL but only if the narrative is sold correctly.

Remember when over 21,000 saw Sydney FC and Urawa Red Diamonds play out a thrilling 2-2 draw in 2007?

A year later, Melbourne Victory drew almost 25,000 for their clash against Chunnam Dragons – and then 26,857 piled in for the unforgettable 4-3 defeat Gamba Osaka. They were both midweek games, before anyone asks.

That was a period when anything to do with Asia enraptured us and the novelty factor was sky high. That wore off quickly because the context was never cultivated.

Now, we don’t care enough to invest our time, efforts and energy. That’s not a criticism but a statement of fact.

Our teams won four games out of 18 last year and not one got out of their group. And not one game in Australia drew an attendance of more than 6,797.

Of course, the Asian Football Confederation and their partners can and should do more. But that’s such a pathetic cop out – and it abrogates the responsibility of Australia as an AFC member. It’s our tournament, too.

For the record, last season, Esteghlal in Iran drew 76,428 for their 1-1 group stage draw with Al-Ahli and not a cent was spent on marketing the game.

You generally can tell which countries care the most about the ACL because they feel they have something to prove to the region. Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan all draw serious crowds (as would Indonesia and Vietnam).

True, Korea doesn’t get large ACL crowds, but they don’t get crowds to any sport, at any level – ditto Qatar and UAE. Yet all three nations regularly produce competitive ACL teams, with Korea’s 11 collective champions six more than any other nation.

Let’s put this simply: Australia feels it has nothing to prove to Asia, and even worse, nothing to gain from it. This blasé arrogance and entitlement has calcified.

Instead, we now care more for our suburban battles, and tether all international esteem to the performance of the Socceroos.

At this rate, the only way our attitude will change is if our clubs start winning the damn thing on a regular basis. Only then will people take notice, as they did with the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.

But here’s the kicker. It’s not easy to win, because competition is white hot, the challenges are extreme and the rivals an unpredictable foe.

Ironically, it’s those very things that make the ACL all the more interesting when our teams go to fly the flag, not only for themselves, but the league and the nation as a whole. If only we knew it was actually on.

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4 min read
Published 16 February 2018 at 3:12pm
By Sebastian Hassett