The ASEAN football Federation has announced that it will commence a new club competition to start next season. The announcement so far only gives us the bare bones and at least one impossible suggestion.
This is of course, the second attempt at such a tournament. The previous try was played in 2003 and 2005.
In 2003, the matches were played in Indonesia. It was too early in their history for Timor-Leste to enter. Australia’s position in ASEAN is for convenience, and they avoid many of the region’s competitions. Hence there were ten champions, to which a second Indonesian team was added and one invitee, East Bengal from India. One team, Finance and Revenue of Myanmar withdrew before the tournament started and were not replaced. This meant that instead of four groups of three with two qualifying from each, there was one group with just two teams. As a result, Samart United from Cambodia lost their only group game, by 2-0 to Petrokimia Putra, but still made it to the quarter-finals. They then lost by the same score to Malaysian Champions Perak. The invited team, East Bengal won their group and then disposed of the two Indonesia teams, Putra and Persita in the quarter and semi-finals. In the final, they beat Thai champions, BEC Tero Sasana by 3-1.
In 2005, no guest team was invited and the decision of the champions of Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines not to enter gave a simple, two groups of four format. Persebaya of Indonesia excused themselves due to fixture congestion, while the other missing teams apparently could not finance it. Group A consisted of Pahang (Malaysia), Hoang Anh Gia Lai (Vietnam), FC Zebra (Timor-Leste) and Nagacorp (Cambodia), while Group B was Tampines Rovers (Singapore), DPMM (Brunei), Finance & Revenue (Myanmar) and Thai Tobacco Monopoly (Thailand). I have listed the teams in finishing order. The two group winners both won semi-finals with the Singaporeans, Tampines Rovers ending up with the cup. All matches were played at the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium in Brunei.
In both these two tournaments, it can be noted that DPMM represented Brunei. At the time, the state of Brunei was represented as a state team in the Malaysian League, but with the move towards club-based operations, DPMM replaced the state team in the Malay competition and since switched to the Singapore League.
As a “foreign” club, DPMM are not allowed to take a place in Asian Football Confederation competitions, with the Brunei place going to the winners of the local amateur league and then generally failing before the group stage. It is a problem that would be familiar to supporters in Wales, where their leading teams, all playing in the English football system cannot represent Wales in Europe, while smaller semi-professional teams play instead. Unlike DPMM however, should a Welsh team qualify for Europe from their English competition, they are allowed to play as “English”. To look for a different system, one needs to look to Canada, where the Canadian teams playing in the USA based competitions get to play against those playing in Canada for the places in CONCACAF contests.
The Asian Football Confederation feels it can easily ignore DPMM, but this should not be the case in an ASEAN competition, as they would lose one of the best teams in the region.
The curious nature of the AFC competitions works against the best competitions in ASEAN. Both the Thai and Malay leagues have a place in the Asian Champions League group stages, with Changrai United and Johor Darul Ta’zim taking these in 2020. Thailand then gets two more clubs in qualifying, while Malaysia gets one only – but the qualifying programme is biased against the smaller countries which means it will be an achievement if one of these makes it to the group stages. There are no places in the second ranked AFC Cup for Thailand or Malaysia.
For the next five countries in ASEAN; Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar, the expected failures in Champions League qualification as the champions of these leagues take their place in the AFC Cup after their defeat. A standby team is listed in case one of these makes it to the Champions League group stage. Apart from the champions (or standby replacement), Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore have a second team, going direct to the AFC Cup group stage. Indonesia and Myanmar have a second team, which has to play qualification. Laos also gets a team into the group stage, and one trying to qualify (but in their case, there is no Champions League attempt). Cambodia, Brunei and Timor Leste only have one team in the AFC Competition and they need to qualify for group stage.
Overall, twelve ASEAN teams play in the group stage, representing between six and nine of the region’s countries. Only the tip countries, Thailand and Malaysia miss out. The ASEAN countries still get a poor deal further down the line. There are 36 teams in nine groups in the AFC Cup group stage. Teams in Group D (Central Asia), Group E (South Asia) and Group I (East Asia) get one team each in the final 8. Groups A, B and C represent West Asia, and get four of the final 8 between them. The remaining three groups, (F, G and H) represent South East Asia but only one team from the region can reach the final 8.
In 2019, the ASEAN final was an all Vietnamese affair as Hanoi beat Binh Duong. Hanoi then beat Altyn Asyr from Turkmenistan before losing to April 25 of North Korea.
So, we already have a mini-ASEAN club championship, with the teams from the best two countries missing.
My first thought on the new competition was “show me the money”. To be honest, and from a European perspective, it appears the numbers with the 12 teams sharing a prize pot not much over US$ 1 million is too small. The report in the Straits Times suggested two groups of six teams before the semi-finals. That means ten group games. Is there enough money in this sponsorship pot to come close to paying expenses?
The tournament needs a TV deal to be successful, and the TV deal needs to be good enough to attract viewers in a world where the other competing football interests always seem to come ahead of domestic or other Asian affairs. I doubt if domestic TV rights in any ASEAN country cost more than the TV networks pay for the various European League which are available. TV Audiences are likely to bear out that the amounts paid for rights are commensurate with the amounts paid. While some domestic football in the ASEAN region can bring in large numbers, it is very variable. At the best, Persija were watched by 36,000 for a group match in 2019, while Lao Toyota had only 230 for one game. Consider a dead rubber group match in a six-team group between teams from Laos and Timor-Leste. How many would turn up to watch in the stadium, 250? Less? What the TV audience even match the live audience?
In fact, I suspect the sponsors of the tournament do not imagine a competition in which all eleven of the ASEAN countries enter their champions, with one extra place somewhere along the line. They would prefer two teams each from six countries, (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, or perhaps one team from Philippines to replace one for Singapore). The other four or five countries will merely be given a place in heavily seeded qualifying games.
The other problem for the organisers is when to play the tournament. They say they can fit it in without infringing on the programmes of domestic and Asian competitions. This suggests to me that it is likely to played towards the end of the year. The ASEAN zone final of the AFC Cup next season is scheduled to complete on 11 or 12 August, and by that time the Champions League is down to the final 8. It would still be a lot of pressure to put in ten group matches starting around then. The fly in this ointment would be the ASEAN Nations Cup, which last took place towards the end of 2018, and hence maybe next scheduled for late 2020.
There is one further claim, at least suggested by the ASEAN Football Federation. That is that the tournament could possibly provide a team to the expanded FIFA World Club Championship in 2021. AFF president Khiev Sameth said: “The prospect of playing in the expanded FIFA Club World Cup is enticing and will translate to, among other things, greater investment by leagues and clubs in the region thus contributing to the further growth of the football ecosystem in South-east Asia.” Unfortunately, the suggestion comes out of cloud-cuckoo land. Asia will have three representatives at the FIFA tournament, and there is no way that a regional competition will be used to select them.
I would suggest that the AFF is better considering a 16, rather than 12 team tournament. With four team groups, the number of dates required for group games is reduced to six (from 10), and the number of group matches drops to 48 (from 60). If you then go to quarter-finals, then there would be an extra knock-out round, but this will be more interesting than more group games. It also allows for the possibility that all 11 ASEAN champions can be easily included in the groups, with five additional teams from qualifying matches, (I would allow each country to enter a second team to compete for these five places). ASEAN still need to sign more partners to raise the funds to support the teams – but my suggestion means they can say they are supporting football right across the region, and not just where it is at its best.