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.


‘Trophies matter’- Jose Mourinho remains defiant ahead of United-Liverpool Premier League clash

Updated 14 December 2018
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‘Trophies matter’- Jose Mourinho remains defiant ahead of United-Liverpool Premier League clash

MANCHESTER: Jose Mourinho says success is best measured in trophies as he prepares to take his injury-hit Manchester United squad to high-flying Liverpool on Sunday.
Liverpool are top of the Premier League before the weekend round of matches but have yet to win a trophy under the management of Jurgen Klopp, who has been in charge since October 2015.
The 18-times English champions have won just one prize in the past 12 years — the League Cup under Kenny Dalglish in 2012 — despite featuring in two European finals.
Mourinho won the Europa League and FA Cup in his first season at Old Trafford but ended last season empty-handed and his team are lagging 16 points behind Klopp’s side in this season’s title race.
“I think trophies matter, yeah,” said Mourinho. “I think it matters, especially when you have the potential to fight for trophies and when you clearly say the objective is to win the trophies.
“I think sometimes just to say it is not very intelligent. But when you have the potential you have nothing to hide.
“I don’t read much but I think they (Liverpool) have said that their objective is to win the Premier League,” he added.
Even though Klopp has yet to win silverware at Anfield, Mourinho acknowledges that the Liverpool manager has built a team in his own image, full of attacking intent.
By contrast, the United manager believes he is still a long way from having a team that reflects the way he wants to play.
“A football team is not just about spending the money,” said Mourinho. “A football team is a little bit like a house. A house is not just about buying your furniture. You have to do work on the house and when it’s ready you buy the furniture.
“You spend money on the best possible furniture and then you are ready to live in an amazing house.”
Mourinho faces taking a depleted squad to Anfield on Sunday, with several players battling to recover from the injuries that kept them out of Wednesday’s Champions League defeat in Valencia.
Defender Victor Lindelof and forward Alexis Sanchez will definitely miss the game as they continue to recover from hamstring injuries.
Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay and Marcos Rojo will be assessed to ascertain whether they can return against Liverpool.
Goalkeeper David de Gea and midfielder Nemanja Matic, who were rested against Valencia, will return, but United’s manager remains unsure how many players he will have to choose from.
“In Valencia, only De Gea and Matic were available to play and didn’t travel by decision,” he said.
“Apart from that, the other players who didn’t travel were not fit to play in Valencia. All of them had injuries and they were not ready.
“All of them didn’t train yesterday again and today there will be a little introduction to training — I don’t want to say test — to see the answer, to see if we can increase it a little bit tomorrow to have them available for Sunday. I hope that some will be available but for sure some will not be.”