Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup
Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup
But while the triumph may be a remarkable achievement for the Iraqi side, it also highlights the plight of a competition that continues to live in the shadow of its more glamorous sister: The AFC Champions League.
Poor attendances, a West Asian monopoly and an all-round lack of interest in the competition are just three of the warning signs for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who now clearly need to do something to bring the AFC Cup closer to the level of the AFC Champions League.
The body revamped its competitions at the turn of the century, getting rid of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup and re-branding the Asian Club Championship as the AFC Champions League.
The AFC Cup was born in 2004 as a tier-two competition, similar to the UEFA Europa League. A major difference, however, is that Asian countries generally cannot have representatives in both continental competitions. Instead, the lower-ranked member associations participate in the AFC Cup while top ones such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, UAE and Australia compete in the AFC Champions League.
Since its birth in 2004, teams from the West Asia Zone have dominated the AFC Cup. Of the 14 titles, only two were won by non-Arab teams: Uzbekistan’s Nasaf lifted the 2011 trophy while Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim won the 2015 title.
Even within West Asia, a handful of teams have taken home the lion’s share of titles: Jordanian side Al-Faisaly won back-to-back titles in 2005, 2006 and lost the 2007 final to their compatriot’s Shabab Al-Ordon.
At least one of the two Kuwaiti sides Al-Qadsia and Al-Kuwait was present at the final every single year between 2009 and 2014, and now Air Force Club have made it two titles on the trot.
The competition struggles to bring crowds to the stands. The 20,000 figure recorded in Saturday’s final was the highest attendance since the 2012 final and the third highest in the competition’s history. That says a lot about how bothered fans are by the tournament.
Conflicts and security fears have meant that teams from places like Syria and Iraq were unable to play at home. The venue for the competition’s final is decided by a draw. This year it was held in Tajikistan, but had the draw favored Air Force Club, they would have had to play in Doha, where they played most of their home games this season. Their semi-final clash against Syria’s Al-Wahda in Qatar brought a meagre 306 fans to the stadium, but even that was far from the worst attendance of the season.
Al-Wahda had faced Bahrain’s Al-Hidd in the group stage in their adopted home of Sidon, Lebanon, in front of 23 fans, and their encounter against the would-be champions at the same ground was attended by 10 fans.
But the problem is not just limited to neutral grounds. Many AFC Cup games fail to even capture the attention of the home fans: Oman’s Saham hosted Lebanon’s Nejmeh in Muscat earlier this year with 180 fans in attendance.
So what can the authorities do to kick the competition’s problems into the stands and bring the AFC Cup closer to the level of the AFC Champions League?
Building a link between the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League proper would be a good start; perhaps reinstating the Super Cup in which the champions of the two competitions face-off, and bringing third placed sides from the AFC Champions League group stage down to the AFC Cup can help increase the popularity of the competition.
Introducing slots for lower ranked teams in the higher-ranking leagues to AFC Cup can also boost attendances. A Saudi side on the level of Al-Fateh or Al-Shabab or an Emirati side such as Al-Nasr would make a welcome upgrade to the quality of the competition.
But after the past few years, and this is no blight on Iraq’s Air Force Club’s victory, it’s clear something needs to be done, and fast.
Felipe Massa ready for Formula E challenge around the streets of Riyadh
- Not only will the December date mark the Kingdom’s entry into Formula E, but it will also mark Massa’s debut
- Massa called the Formula E vehicles “the car of the next generation”
Noor Nugali Riyadh: Felipe Massa cannot wait to get behind the wheel of a Formula E car and jumpstart his new career when the spectacle of speed storms into Riyadh for the season opener on Dec. 15.
The Saudi Arabia capital was named as the newest stopping point for the sport in May, with it being the first race of a 13-race season, which sees the electric-powered cars tackle street circuits across the globe.
Not only will the December date mark the Kingdom’s entry into Formula E, but it will also mark Massa’s debut, having left the Formula One paddock for the growing sport. And the 37-year-old told Arab News he is excited about the prospect of tackling the streets of Ad Diriyah, the oldest part of the capital, in one of the electrically powered speed machines.
“I am ready for the race. It’s a fantastic feeling driving around the city, the town, it’s historical. It will be a big event,” Massa said at press conference to announce Saudi Arabian Airlines’ new long-term partnership as official airline partner of the all-electric series.
“I’m really happy to be a part of this new challenge for my career. In a new place and country, it’s motivating.”
Having won 11 Grands Prix during an illustrious career in F1, during which time he raced for Ferrari, some might think Massa would not be daunted by the move to Formula E. The Brazilian, however, is taking nothing for granted.
“It’s a big challenge for me to change categories, to Formula E,” he said, having got a chance to put some early practice in as he took a Gen2 car around the streets of the capital.
“Learning everything is a challenge. It’s different cars, different tracks and a different way of driving. I need to learn and grow to understand but I like new challenges.”
Massa called the Formula E vehicles “the car of the next generation” and it is hoped that the Ad Diriyah race helps the changing face of Saudi Arabia by inspiring more women to get behind the wheel in the Kingdom — something not lost on Massa.
“I heard that women are driving (in Saudi Arabia) now and that’s fantastic — hopefully in the future there will female racers,” he said.
“We are racing in a country (whose main export is oil), and we are racing with electric cars. I think it shows that this country wants to change its mentality and its thinking of the future. It’s really positive and I’m so happy to be a part of this.”
Thanks to the Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, the Middle East has long been associated with motorsport, and it is well known that the region is awash with petrolheads. The Riyadh Formula E race, however, will be international motorsport’s first move into Saudi Arabia.
But rather than look to bring F1 to the country his Abdul Aziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal, vice-chair of the General Sports Authority, revealed that Formula E was the only format they wanted to see in the capital.
“This is a truly game-changing moment for Saudi Arabia and one that we can share with the world,” he said. “It is very fitting that the such a futuristic and sustainable sport as Formula E is pointing to the future direction of our country.
“Saudi Arabia is home to literally millions of passionate young fans of motorsport, many of whom simply cannot believe that Felipe Massa took the Gen2 car around the streets of the capital today and that they now have a ‘home race’ on the Formula E calendar. So already the excitement is building, especially since we’re adding live music concerts to the weekend line-up.”
The track Massa and Co. will be tackling this December was revealed at the press conference. At 1.76 miles long, the first road circuit in the Middle East features 21 corners, a number of which are long flowing ones taken at high speed. It is hoped that the race will get both Saudi Arabia’s entry to the sport and the season itself off to a spectacular start, and in doing so inspire a new generation of speed demons.
Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal Al-Saud, president of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, said: “Something we haven’t announced yet, is that there will be a support race for Formula E.
“It’s the Jaguar I-Pace trophy, it will race around the world with the Formula E circuit.
“Saudi Arabia will participate in that championship as a national team with two Saudi Arabian drivers and we will announce the names soon.”