FIFA's proposed world club championship is likely to involve teams from Asia and Africa as well as Europe and South America, we look at how the Champions League format is spreading around the word. Justin McCurry reports from Asia, while Alan Duncan examines the situation in Africa
The Asian club championship has some way to go in terms of sponsorship, prestige and public and media interest before it can rival similar competitions in Europe and South America.
The general gloom that descended on the region with a series of disappointing performances by Asian nations at France 98 was lifted only by Iran’s politically charged victory over the United States, some encouraging performances by Japan and the US$3.3 million transfer of Japanese midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata to Serie A club Perugia.
But despite the failure of an Asian team to progress beyond the first round, the interest in football the finals generated is finally forcing football clubs in the region to take their club championship more seriously. The tournament began in 1967 as the Asian Champions Club tournament following a decision five years earlier by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to establish a tournament modelled on the European Cup. Financial restraints, coupled with the sheer size of the continent and the diversity of political systems and economic health among members of the confederation – which stretches from the Lebanon in the west to Guam in the east – soon presented organizers with several headaches.
Those problems became so acute that the tournament was not held between 1972 and 1984. Upon its revival in 1985, the renamed Asian Club Championship featured intra-regional first and second round tournaments aimed at cutting down on the long and expensive journeys the teams had been forced to make.
In this year’s tournament, which kicked off in August, four qualifiers from the West and Central Asia group and four from the East Asia group will meet in separate round-robin quarter-final stages next year. The semi-finals and final will bring together the top two teams from either group at a neutral venue next April.
The decision to hold the latter stages in neutral venues has drawn criticism from observers, who point to last year’s dismally attended finals in Hong Kong as proof of the AFC’s folly in persevering with the idea. With region-wide recognition of teams in other countries remaining far below that of Europe, it is implausible to expect fans and media in, say, Malaysia to show even a passing interest in a final played between clubs from two other countries.
Similarly, it is argued that the geographically guided nature of the quarter-finals means that the same teams tend to meet one another year after year, leaving the tournament bereft of the intrigue that only truly open draws can provide. The teams, too, are guilty of taking the championships lightly, as last year’s J League winners Kashima Antlers discovered to their cost. Having made the quarter-finals in China, Kashima sent a second-string team, having lost six regular players to a pre-World Cup training camp in Australia. Kashima duly failed to qualify for the semi-finals, depriving the tournament of the coverage and financial rewards that would surely have come had the team progressed.
This year’s J League representatives, Jubilo Iwata, face similar problems, with a handful of their star players missing out on a second round tie against Finance and Revenue from Myanmar late last month to play in an international friendly against Egypt the same night.
Players can hardly be blamed for choosing international football over a routine club fixture, but a more earnest approach to the championships by clubs, particularly those in Japan and South Korea, is critical to the tournament’s long-term survival. Smaller, poorer clubs, too, are being encouraged by the AFC to commit themselves to the tournament with the introduction of financial incentives for those progressing to the second round ($5,000) and quarter-finals ($10,000).
If the prospect of being ignominiously knocked out by inferior opponents is not enough to change clubs’ attitudes, increased sponsorship and television coverage, coupled with the mouth-watering prospect of a place in a World Club Championships within the next few years, might put a end to their ambivalence.
The number of companies sponsoring this year’s Asian Club Championships increased to twelve from eight last year, according to AFC general secretary Peter Velappan. Sponsorship is offered over a four-year period, with money shared among several tournaments organized by the AFC, including the Asian Cup-Winners Cup, the Olympic and World Cup qualifiers and the under-19 and women’s tournaments. Informed estimates place contributions by bigger sponsors at a modest US$1 million each a year. It is likely that more names will be added to the list during the next round of sponsorship deals in early 2002, right on cue for the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Although first and second round fixtures receive little or no television coverage, the region’s satellite channels, notably Star TV and Rupert Murdoch’s JSkyB in Japan, will provide live coverage of the latter stages. NHK, the country’s equivalent to the BBC, will also show some of the games on one of its two satellite channels.
But only events on the pitch will ultimately convince sponsors, fans and media organizations that the championship deserves the attention similar competions attract in Europe and South America. As yet, few are convinced that Asian teams playing in a FIFA World Club Championships would do more than make up the numbers.
Michael Church, editor of AFC News, the Asian Confederation’s official monthly, says this year’s champions would have to come from Japan (Jubilo), South Korea (Pohang), Saudi Arabia (Al Hilal) or Iran (Esteghlal) if embarrassment is to be avoided at the World Club Championships. Japan-based sportswriter Jeremy Walker is more optimistic: “Jubilo would not embarrass themselves. Any of the top six teams in the J League could hold their own against the best teams elsewhere, just like the national team did against Argentina and Croatia in the World Cup.”In the meantime, supporters of the Asian game will be hoping that the region’s footballing exports are as successful as those around which it built its economic strength. Inevitably, much depends on the continuing success of Nakata in Italy, where his team have made an encouraging start to the season. He has established himself as the guiding force in Perugia’s midfield, scoring three goals in the first six games. Still, the player himself, who routinely denies he possesses any special football talents, would find it hard to accept that the notion that the future of Asian club football rests, to an extent, on his shoulders.
Meanwhile those watching from the sidelines will count themselves lucky football has, for the time being, been mercifully spared by the region’s economic crisis. In that sense, it was reassuring to learn that the sudden withdrawal of the Indonesian league from this year’s championship was not fallout from former President Suharto’s economic mismanagement, but the result of “financial irregularities” (back-handers) involving the national league’s referees…
It was perhaps the look of dismay on the face of Irvin Khoza, chairman of the South African club Orlando Pirates, that heralded the beginning of a new era in Africa’s Champions Cup competition. The year was 1995 and Pirates had just been crowned African club champions after defeating ASEC Mimosas of Ivory Coast in the final. “What of the prize money?” Khoza had asked an official of the Confederation of African Football. There was none, came the reply.
Khoza could be forgiven his ignorance. The doors of African football had only just been opened to South African clubs following their exclusion during the apartheid years. Big-time marketing, in the shape of sponsorship deals and the selling of lucrative TV rights, was taken for granted in South Africa, but such concepts had not been explored by the rest of the continent, even though the Champions Cup had been in existence since 1965.
Khoza’s insistence that the teams’ efforts should be rewarded spurred others to put pressure on CAF. Yet it was only as recently as August 1997 that CAF kicked off its inaugural Champions League, with a UEFA-inspired format finally offering the teams making it through to the latter stages the opportunity of balancing their books at the very least. This was big news for African clubs, especially with the promise of a US$3 million pot provided by the French-based Darmon media group, who had secured the TV rights.
In the past, when a club like Pirates won the Champions Cup there was always a lingering suspicion that, like the dynasty of north African teams before them, the South Africans had won simply because they had the financial clout to last the distance. Clubs from north Africa have won all but one of the titles since 1984, while the rest of the continent, with the exception of teams from economically prosperous Ivory Coast, has struggled to keep up.
In its present form, the competition involves knock-out qualifying rounds from which eight teams progress to a lucrative league stage. The eight are divided into two groups of four who play home and away ties, with the winners of the respective groups entering a two-legged final. Despite these changes there was a sense of déjà vu when another north African side, Raja Casablanca of Morocco, clinched the first Champions League title last season after defeating Obuasi Goldfields of Ghana in a penalty shoot-out.
The Ghanaians and Moroccans picked up $225,000 (£135,000) each for reaching the final, laughable in comparison to Europe, but enough to transform the game in Africa. Entries for the 1998 competition reached a record level. And supporters can now watch live images of their teams beamed back from any corner of Africa. While satellite dishes are a prerequisite for viewing, there is generally no subscription fee, and African fans have a long tradition of crowding round televisions in makeshift venues.
In boardrooms across the continent, the talk is less of the trophy but of the money.The eight teams who make it through to the league stage each land $150,000, with a further $10,000, for each victory, $7,000 for a draw and $1,000 for each goal scored. To put such sums into perspective, the South African championship’s $145,000 prize money is the biggest in Africa. A team like Manning Rangers from Durban, leading their group in this year’s Champions League, could earn triple that sum by going all the way to the final. Of course money does not guarantee future success, as last year’s runners-up Goldfields have discovered. The team who won three consecutive domestic league titles between 1994 and 1996 have to play off to retain their Premier League status in Ghana this season.
But the hard currency has helped clubs to slow down the exodus of talented players to Europe while giving a boost to intra-African transfers. Most significantly, however, it has served to heighten competition in domestic leagues and reduce the large number of withdrawals which used to plague the old version of the Champions Cup and still damage the other two continental cups – the Cup-Winners Cup and the CAF Cup. Such is the concern over withdrawals that the money for reaching the group stage of the Champions League is not paid until the end of the tournament.
The 1998 edition has been exciting, with African giants ASEC Mimosas and Manning Rangers separated only on goal difference at the top of Group B with only one match remaining to be played on November 7th. Dynamos of Zimbabwe, operating on a modest budget, have been the revelation of the championship, and are as good as in the final after a 1-0 away win against Eagle Cement from Nigeria, which remains the only one of Africa’s major football powers never to have won the top club competition.
While Africa is still waking up to the reality of the media’s growing influence in sport, things are still at an experimental stage. It is difficult to see any of Africa’s big clubs – north or south of the Sahara – advocating the formation of a super league. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, throws their hat into the ring when CAF’s current arrangement with Darmon expires in 2000. However, there has been talk of expanding the league stage to 12 teams, separated in three groups. Africa, like Europe before it, is already hooked on the money. But at least it could be argued that they genuinely need it. Alan Sharif Duncan
From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month