The Asian Champions League (ACL) is the pinnacle of club football in Asia. The tournament pits teams with different resources, playing styles and fan bases against each other in a continental competition showcasing the best Asian football has to offer. Sounds great, but why are the majority of A-League clubs yet to fully embrace the ACL?
There have been arguments about the timing of the competition in relation to the A-League, but this is not going to change any time soon. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is not going to make major changes to their calendar when the majority of the continent’s leagues are scheduled to begin at roughly the same time.
A-League clubs have to adapt to the demands of playing more than one game in a week. Many of the players from the Australian clubs involved in this season’s ACL have played in Europe, where crammed fixture lists are the norm. The sooner clubs stop using an increased fixture load as an excuse, the more likely we are to see teams performing well on multiple fronts.
Success in one season earns a club a spot in the ACL for the following campaign. Clubs are seeing the ACL as a distraction when in reality it is the reward for their good performances in the previous season. They can’t have it both ways.
In previous seasons, clubs have rested players during the group stages to try and ensure a good finish in the A-League. It was finishing in the upper reaches of the table a year earlier that qualified them for the ACL in the first place so using the ACL as an excuse needs to stop.
Central Coast Mariners coach Phil Moss provided some positive reinforcement surrounding the competition’s value.
“This is a different style of competition, and a different culture we are faced with so it is an eye-opener for those who haven’t experienced it before,” he said.
“For those that have, this competition is a breath of fresh air and a real privilege to be involved in.”
These words echo the feelings of many fans around the A-League. While the league has benefited from new teams, new venues and previously unseen playing styles over the past few seasons, there is also a desire for something new and fresh. Fans are craving an adventure, and the ACL provides the perfect opportunity.
There is nothing in football quite like seeing a new player who captivates the imagination for the first time. Or visiting a new stadium that had previously only been an image on a television screen. There is the opportunity for moments of discovery and wonder in the ACL that the A-League cannot offer. Not because the A-League isn’t a fantastic league in its own right, but because continental football has a certain magic about it.
It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s unpredictable. Just ask any fan of Swansea City, who competed in this season’s UEFA Europa League. Despite being a widely derided competition, the fans were energised by glamour ties against Valencia and Napoli. The romantic and unfamiliar nature of continental football draws the fans in and gives them something to dream about.
Once again it was Mariners coach Phil Moss who recognised the challenge ahead, but also relished the opportunity to compete against a relatively unknown opponent, when speaking to the media ahead of his side’s clash with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“But it’s a challenge that we’re relishing and it’s one that we know we’re up to both from a mental point of view and a quality point of view.”
This mindset has been sadly lacking in previous seasons, with a couple of notable exceptions all from the same club. Adelaide United are the A-League’s most successful club in the ACL, having reached the final in 2008, and the quarter finals in 2012. The Reds have had adventures and drama in the ACL that fans of other clubs can only dream of, arguably due to the pessimistic outlook from management and players.
Of course the most infamous example of the negative attitude towards the ACL came from now Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat, during his time as a Victory player.
“To be honest, playing in Asia is not all that enjoyable…People going down left, right and centre, stalling for time, it’s not that enjoyable playing in the Champions League,” He told Fox Sports after one ACL group stage game.
That mentality has been prevalent throughout his time in charge of Victory, as seen in a recent press conference where he had this to say:
“It makes life so much harder. That’s just a fact. It makes life so much harder playing these games, because you’re playing against very good opposition. More times than most you’re having to travel. But it’s exciting. I think we should embrace it.”
Look at those first four sentences again. Doesn’t sound like he really means the last two does it? While it’s impossible to completely read the thoughts of a coach from one press conference, Muscat does make a startling contradiction.
He provides numerous examples of why the competition is a negative, and then says that his Victory side should embrace it. That’s a mixed message if ever there was one.
Fans want to see their club competing on a bigger stage, against players and teams that they’re not accustomed to watching every week. The supporters’ desire for adventure needs to be fulfilled, but that can only be done when teams realise just how great a competition the ACL is, and what it can do for their club as a whole.