The Australia-shaped problem with the Asian Champions League
Background image: Warren Smith
The Asian Champions League is the defining prize in the largest continent’s football continuum. Eight groups divide into East and West Asia to help with scheduling. Various leagues are allocated spaces based on their comparative strength, exactly like UEFA. Dividing the clubs by geographical location limits travel's effect on a tournament that traverses eleven time zones. The two regions are completely separated until the two-legged final.
Unfortunately, North and South are not accounted for. Since Australia joined the Confederation in 2006, that's posed a problem. Fifteen-hour flights between Riyadh and Tokyo are only a possibility in the final round. Two 11-hour junkets between China and Australia are on tap this week with the return legs still to come down the road.
The Eastern region is mostly localised. South Korea, China, and Japan each field four clubs. Thailand receives three, Malaysia two, Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar all claim one. Far away from the rest, Oz matches Thailand with three berths. That's where the craic starts. While Newcastle Jets failed to progress through the qualifying stages, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC made it to the group stage.
Both clubs drew into groups featuring one Chinese, one Japanese and one South Korean opponent. In Group F, the Victory face Guangzhou Evergrande, Sanfrecce and Daegu. Shanghai SIPG, Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai are the unlucky sides who will eat up frequent flyer miles heading down to the Southern Hemisphere. Of course, the A-League sides have it worse in spades. Each must make three round trips to the north.
Shanghai SIPG take the long trip to Sydney, a casual 10hr 35m excursion midweek. Going the other way, Melbourne journey to Guangzhou. Factor in the three-hour time difference and there are serious physical and logistical problems. Asking professional footballers to undertake trans-Pacific commutes within an already tight football season threatens their health by disrupting sleep schedules and raising the risk of injury. Shanghai must complete a 15,000km+ round trip amid three competitive football games in the space of nine days. The word is exhaustion.
As a rule of thumb, a regular human requires four full rest days to recuperate from jet lag symptoms. I know this first hand. When I visited England for Christmas, I didn’t rest. I stayed up all night, drinking expensive coffee and craft beer. I didn’t recover, My body clock was still set to Japan. I only started to feel better when I returned to Yokohama after eight days in Blighty. If I had rested, my memories would have been more than blurry washed out efforts of feeling sleepy at six pm without being able to close my eyes.
For the unfamiliar, the K-League's FC Seoul are like Arsenal. They win trophies, just not all the time. After winning the title in 2016, they drew Sydney in the 2017 Champions League. A 10 hr, 35-minute flight paid off in the short term with a 3-2 very far away win. The long-term was a different story. They won just five of their next 16 games, a horrid patch for a defending champion. They finished fifth overall, missing out on last year's continental competition, maybe for the better.
Shanghai Shenhua’s plight isn’t as troublesome. They still endured a miserable season last year due to their ACL participation. They started their 2018 campaign with an away day in Japan that ended in a draw. The three-and-half-hour flight plus the time difference was enough to ensure that the side had to wait another six games before winning. Nothing, however, topped their final dead rubber outing to Sydney, in which the fans were treated to a bore draw. The agony however continued as the team then lost 5-1 in the league five days after, then exited the cup competition to a lower side in another three days time.
The common denominator? Australian teams were in their groups. As already noted, the A-Leaguers suffer too. Every game for the Aussie teams is a ten-hour haul in each direction.
Western Sydney Wanderers endured a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Urawa Reds two years ago. Not only were they 7,800 kilometres from home, they’d stopped playing in other competitions. The A-League season doesn’t align very well with the ACL calendar. By the group stage's end, the domestic post-season is over, the Grand Final played and the champion decided. Domestic opponents were already on holiday. When A-League clubs progress beyond the group they must play lone knockout matches, with no league competition between to keep physically fit and mentally sharp. They aren't helping themselves by playing in this tournament.
Ultimately, the ACL is a hindrance to Australian and Asian teams. The fact that such misfortune is bestowed to multiple teams is telling.
Is there a solution? The simplest answer is to boot Australia out of the tournament. No offence, but Oz are the elephant in the room. Without them, commutes settle into Europa League range, which isn't ideal but eminently more acceptable. Allow the A-League to compete in the Oceania Football Confederation's Champions League but internationally in the AFC. The headaches simply aren't worth the trouble as things stand.