KARACHI: On Wednesday, the finalists for this season’s AFC Champions League showpiece will be decided.
Not that many football fans in Pakistan would be concerned.
The UEFA Champions League group stage game between Manchester City and Bayern Munich would rather be generating more excitement not only amongst football fans in the country but also across South Asia. Consider football fans in Pakistan.
They’ll be rooting for a team in another continent, watching a game late in the night when two big games — semi-finals for that matter — of their own continent’s top club competition will be contested in two of Pakistan’s neighbouring countries and that too at a more appropriate time.
Esteghlal face FC Seoul at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium looking to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit while Guangzhou Evergrande welcome Kawisha Reysol to their Tianhe Stadium for the second-leg already having one foot in the final following their 4-1 win in Kawisha last week.
If only Asia’s football fans were fans of Asian football, there would’ve been great excitement for the two games across the continent on Wednesday.
“There is great support for European football amongst young kids in the country,” Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) president Faisal Saleh Hayat told Dawn.
“A lot of kids want to play the game and eventually this interest will help Pakistan football.”
But how will Asian football attract a European football-inspired generation?
More importantly, is a flawed club competition structure of the Asian Football Confederation hampering the growth of the game in Pakistan and the other ‘emerging countries’ as called by Asia’s football governing body?
“Asia’s club structure needs to change,” former Pakistan coach Tariq Lutfi told Dawn. “In order to help the game prosper in the whole continent, it needs to be revamped.”
Last week, Lutfi led his Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) side to the final of the AFC President’s Cup — Asia’s third-tier club competition.
The Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions lost the title clash 1-0 to Turkmenistan’s Balkan FC on Sunday.
LACK OF EXPOSURE
“The players lack that required level of exposure,” Lutfi told Dawn after the final in Malaysia. “They succumbed to the pressure.”
Exposure is the main concern for Asia’s ‘emerging countries’.
Champion teams from Asia’s bottom 20 countries — according to AFC’s ranking criterion — play in the President’s Cup.
The teams from the 14 ‘developing’ countries above them compete in the AFC Cup with clubs from the top 10 ‘mature’ nations featuring in the Champions League.
The President’s Cup sees matches of the preliminary group stage and the finals stage held at a centralised venue.
It takes hardly two weeks to wrap up — a week for the preliminary stage and another for the finals stage — with only the time between the two stages prolonging the event’s duration.
KRL became the first team from Pakistan to reach the final of a continental competition a season after Zesh Rehman became the first Pakistan player to feature in the AFC Cup.
Incidentally, his first goal for Hong Kong side Kitchee came in their AFC Cup match against Vietnamese side Song Lam Nghe last year.
This season, Zesh — and Kitchee’s — AFC Cup campaign came to an end in the quarter-final stage where they were bundled out 4-2 on aggregate by Jordanian side Al Faisaly.
The former Fulham defender, though, believes Asia’s club football structure needs changing.
“Of course the UEFA Champions League is the biggest club football event in the world,” Zesh told Dawn.
“I don’t think any competition would be able to rival it, but maybe if the AFC Champions League was more open it would benefit football in the continent as a whole.”
The AFC Champions League is well and truly the flagship competition.
Re-branded in 2002, the AFC has pumped millions of dollars in to a tournament that now involves 32 teams from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Pacific east coast but yet three quarters of the continent are left excluded.
COMPLEX GRADING SYSTEM
This season, only 10 of 47 AFC members had an automatic representation in the event. That is because of a complex grading system of the AFC where domestic leagues are rated for the stadia, marketing, transport and attendances.
The argument can be made that it will help to strengthen the region and allow more quality to seep into the organisation of the events; but the competition also chooses to ignore the less-rich, like the champions of Pakistan or Syria who get nothing.
Things are different in Europe — and the UEFA Champions League.
UEFA has made room for the likes of BATE Borisov and CFR Cluj in the group stages, thus spreading the wealth and allowing a smaller league to generate some revenue of its own, as well as deepening the scope of the on-pitch battles.
“The AFC has a grading criterion which has to be met in order for a country to field a team in the Champions League,” Faisal adds.
“There has been great deliberation over the structure and it will come up in future AFC meetings so hopefully it will open up for lower-ranked countries.”
But the PFF chief argues that the travelling required for Champions League games would hit a Pakistan team hard if they were to compete in the continent’s marquee club competition.
For the last three seasons, KRL have been featuring in the President’s Cup. And travelling to a centralised venue, with a package of four games, means less spending.
“AFC Champions League is the largest, most populous club football tournament on the globe and mammoth journeys are expected in it week in week out,” Faisal informs.
“The major issue appears to be the logistics of transporting teams and fans across vast distances for games.”
Even if the team — for example well-funded institutions like KRL — manages to bear the financial burden of travel, the question remains how far will it help Pakistan football? Will it inspire the country’s new generation to take up the game as a profession?
“It will certainly help,” Lutfi says. “It would certainly be an incentive for players to take the game seriously.
“Even if for many young people in the country the first experiences of football may have come from watching one of Europe’s elite on TV, Pakistani presence in the AFC Champions League might start a new trend.”
Mohammad Adil, one of several stars in Lutfi’s KRL side, hopes playing in the AFC Champions League will ultimately help him realize his ambition of playing in a European club one day.
“I hope I play well in the President’s Cup so that I get an offer from a bigger club — probably in the Gulf [because they play in the Champions League],” Adil told Dawn before KRL left for Malaysia.
It is the Champions League where he hopes to capture the attention of Europe’s top clubs.
Like UAE’s Omar Abdul Rehman. The Al-Ain winger is being courted by Europe’s top clubs — including Manchester City — following some sparkling performances in the AFC Champions League.
For him, it has been easy. At the prime of his career — 21 years of age, like Adil — he has had a chance to show his skill at Asia’s biggest stage. Adil, meanwhile, has had to go through several hurdles and even though he has impressed, he is yet to play in the Champions League.
First he had to win the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) with KRL, and then cut his teeth in the President’s Cup before finally excelling in the third-tier tournament.
A better club football structure in Asia would’ve accelerated his growth.
“It is frustrating for aspiring footballers in Pakistan because there is no incentive for us to grow,” former Pakistan captain Mohammad Essa tells Dawn. “There are not many opportunities for us to show our mettle, for us to rub our shoulders with the best.”
The best are in the Champions League.
This season, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi is looking to win the tournament with big-spending Guangzhou and become the first manager to lift both the AFC Champions League and its UEFA counterpart — having led Juventus to glory in 1996.
He is the second World Cup winning coach in recent time to take part in the event, following Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari, who won the 2002 edition of the FIFA spectacle.
Scolari was joined at Uzbek side Bunyodkor in 2008 by compatriot Rivaldo — one of the biggest names to have featured in the Champions League — but the title proved elusive in their two years at the cash-rich side.
And while the stars continue to shine in the Champions League, Pakistan’s footballers continue to watch from the sidelines.
For the football fans in Pakistan in South Asia, they will continue to identify themselves with clubs in the UEFA Champions League, rather than those in their own continent — or country, for that matter.
Note: This is one half of a two-part series in which Dawn examines why the rising interest in football in Pakistan and South Asia has not transformed into better results on the international level.