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.


Formula E boss says Saudi race well on track

Updated 23 October 2018
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Formula E boss says Saudi race well on track

  • The Riyadh Formula E race will be international motorsport’s first move into Saudi Arabia, with all eyes on the Ad Diriyah track
  • Formula E supremo Alejandro Agag expressed his excitement that Saudi Arabia, as with former Formula One hero Massa, is making its bow in the sport

RIYADH: With motor racing star Felipe Massa set to make his Formula E debut, the inaugural Saudi Arabia E-Prix in Riyadh was always likely to be a stunning spectacle of speed.

But the sport’s supremo Alejandro Agag has promised race fans yet more big surprises before the green light signals go at the Ad Diriyah street circuit on Dec.15, claiming the Kingdom is “the home of Formula E.”

Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi Arabian capital, Agag expressed his excitement that Saudi Arabia, as with former Formula One hero Massa, is making its bow in the sport and predicted the country would have a big influence on its future.

“This is now the home of formula E,” Agag said.

“Thanks to the vision of HRH Crown Prince Mohammed, for the first time in Saudi Arabia these cars will be here, it’s the motorsport of the future.”

While he refused to reveal any of the big announcements surrounding the race he did praise the forward thinking of a country with the largest oil exports in the world going full-throttle in embracing electric cars.

That forward thinking has been matched away from the track, with Agag acknowledging the Vision 2030 reforms made by Kingdom’s rulers over the past two years.

“We could not race in Saudi Arabia if women could not drive. I think that Saudi Arabia is taking the right steps, and that is what attracted us,” the Spaniard said.

Thanks to the Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Grand 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, so all eyes will be on the Ad Diriyah track. Located in the birthplace of the Kingdom the circuit, revealed last month, has excited the drivers, Agag revealed.

The drivers cannot wait for the season to start in Riyadh, they are looking forward to racing around the new track, he added.

Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of Ad Diriyah gate development, is certain the Middle East’s newest track will not disappoint the racers and all the petrolheads set to descend on the capital.

“The preparations are fabulous,” Inzerillo told Arab News.

“Everybody has to come out and see it, it will be so much fun.”

Touching on plans for the wider development, to be announced in the coming weeks, he added: “It’s going to be the jewel of the Kingdom as it already is. There is a very bold masterplan, but when you see what is planned, Ad Diriyah as it should be is going to be the great gathering place for people all around the world. It is certainly the soul of the Saudi nation.”