It's time for Southeast Asia to get some more Champions League love
Two hours before kick-off on Tuesday there was excitement in the sweet air on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. By the time the game started at the home of Muangthong United, the fans in red in the Yamaha Ultras Stand were in full voice.
Korea is the most successful country in terms of Asian titles yet has perhaps the least interest in the tournament
Then in the far corner there were the massed ranks of the Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) faithful who worked as hard as their players over 120 minutes of football that was all high-intensity, high-energy and, mostly, high-quality. This was a big game with a big atmosphere, a proper football frenzy of the like that is not seen in the Asian Champions League often enough.
But this was not the Asian Champions League. It wasn't even a playoff for the tournament itself, but merely a step to the next stage. Two of the biggest teams in Southeast Asia were taking part in a sudden-death elimination match for the right to travel to China to face the very big-spending Shanghai SIPG.
It is unfortunate for JDT that they will not be in the Asian Champions League (and as AFC Cup holders they really should be) after losing on penalties. It is unfortunate for Muangthong that their continental ambitions will almost certainly be ended by Sven Goran Eriksson's team of stars.
It is also unfortunate for Asian football in general that such an atmosphere will not now be seen in the continent's main competition. This tournament needs such nights of passion and excitement, especially when the so-called bigger teams from the better leagues can't always be counted on to provide them.
While UEFA allocates slots in its flagship competition based on results on the pitch, the AFC carves up the Asian tournament's 32 spots depending on what goes on off the pitch. According to the organisation, the 2016 allocations were decided on the basis of three criteria.
Namely “the AFC Member Associations Ranking 2014, the AFC Champions League Criteria and the Club License of the clubs eligible to participate in the most prestigious club competition in Asia”. Basically, the better organised and more professional the AFC thinks the league is, the more points it hands out. Points mean places.
There has been an expansion of sorts in the past two or three years but it doesn't amount to much. Overall, 17 countries enter the competition but only 11 are sure of a group stage spot. Of the 16 teams that will make up the eastern half of the draw it is likely that there will be four each for Korea and Japan, with six divided up by Australia and China. It doesn't leave much for anyone else.
The playoffs have grown but even here the odds are rigged in favour of the favourites. If you are from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore or India then if you make the final stage, there is a tough one-off away game at the home of a team from South Korea, Japan, China and Australia. It would be a major surprise if even one of these four hosts failed to make it through. Two legs would be tough enough but just the one far from home is more than double the challenge.
Korea is the most successful country in terms of Asian titles yet ironically, the country has perhaps the least interest in the tournament. Games are often not even televised and good luck to the football fan who wants to see a K-League team getting Asian action during the baseball season.
The general public cares almost not a jot, while fans and media usually don't get excited until the very latter stages. Japan can also take the tournament for granted. There will be plenty of empty seats in East Asia when the football starts.
It would be a major sacrifice for Japan and Korea to have 'only' three representatives in order to give other countries more of a chance. This is not to say that Malaysian sides would be close to winning the group but a little down the line, with a little experience and knowhow, things can change.
It wasn't that long ago that Chinese teams were also-rans. It took Buriram United, a Thai team that finished level on group points with eventual semi-finalists Gamba Osaka last season and reached the last eight in 2013, time to settle and if the big boys still think the others are not up to it, they would do well to remember that there were similar opinions voiced about Asian teams at the World Cup until not that long ago.
The experience would be valuable for the Southeast Asians but more representation from that region would have other benefits too. Clubs like JDT and Muangthong are not only desperate to be there, they have the infrastructure and the backing to make full use of regular tests against the top teams.
A little variety can add a lot of spice especially at a time when every year sees many of the same familiar faces return. In parts of Southeast Asia there is so much colour, excitement, ambition and a better backdrop for broadcasters to showcase Asia's Champions League around the world.
At the moment, the playoffs for these teams are all a little pointless, even cruel. They offer a glimpse of the group stage but it is a promised land into which the doorway is blocked. It's a shame and in the long-run nobody benefits from the exclusion of the likes of JDT and Muangthong. The Asian Champions League needs them.
Photos: Muangthong United