Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup

Iraq’s Air Force Club celebrated success in the final of the AFC Cup by beating Istiklol from Tajikistan. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2017
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Victory for Iraq should not mask flaws of AFC Cup

DUBAI: Iraq’s Air Force Club entered the continental hall of fame on Saturday with their second consecutive AFC Cup title after defeating Tajikistan’s Istiklol 1-0 in the final.
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.


Morocco proud of its Atlas Lions despite Portugal defeat, World Cup exit

Updated 20 June 2018
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Morocco proud of its Atlas Lions despite Portugal defeat, World Cup exit

  • While Morocco were on top for long periods, the Atlas Lions could not get the goal they deserved and needed
  • Ronaldo, named man of the match by FIFA after his fourth goal of the World Cup so far, recognized that it was a tough game

MOSCOW: Morocco became the first team to exit the 2018 World Cup on Wednesday after a 1-0 loss to Portugal in Moscow left coach Herve Renard to reflect on what could have been had he been able to call up Cristiano Ronaldo.
Just five days after his hat-trick against Spain in a 3-3 thriller, the Real Madrid star was once again the difference-maker and scored the only goal of the game with a fourth-minute header.
While Morocco were on top for long periods, the Atlas Lions could not get the goal they deserved and needed. It was a similar outcome to the opening 1-0 loss to Iran when the North Africans had chances to win, but ended with nothing.
It leaves Morocco with zero points from two games in Group B and unable to finish in the top two with a final game against Spain on Monday now just a matter of pride.
“This is what happens in football,” Renard said. “In the penalty area at crucial times, the most gifted players are the ones who make all the difference. It is a lot easier to play with a player who can score from a goal opportunity. We have high quality players and should have been more effective as we had lots of chances.”
Ronaldo, named man of the match by FIFA after his fourth goal of the World Cup so far, recognized that it was a tough game for the European champions who now have four points from two games.
“I am very happy to score, but it is more important to win the game and get the points,” Ronaldo said. “We know if we lost we could be out. We knew they would be trying very hard and were very strong. It was a really tough game for us, but I managed to get the goal, and it was beautiful.”
Morocco were unhappy with the goal, with Renard asking reporters to look at the corner from which Portugal scored, hinting that Portuguese defender Pepe had fouled one of his players. “Have a good look at the corner kick and what the number three is doing and write the truth. I can’t say too much or I will be punished.”
As it is, however, Morocco are out regardless of what happens against Spain on June 25. Renard has, however, insisted that the team will leave Russia with their heads held high.
“I am not disappointed with the performance,” the French coach said. “I am very proud of my players, very proud of the country and proud of the staff. The whole Moroccan people are proud, even very proud, of this team. It felt like Casablanca in here and that is something you can never take away from the players.”
The well-travelled 49-year-old reflected on Morocco’s journey since he took the job in February 2016. “Then we were ranked 81 and now we are 41 and came to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. Here we have shown we can play football, we do play football.”
Portuguese coach Fernando Santos paid tribute to the North Africans.
“They played well and challenged us. It is maybe an unfair result for them, that is football. If you score, you can win. I am not happy with the way we played, but we played against a good team.”