Latest AFC rankings give Saudi Arabia clear path for improvement

Al-Hilal’s impressive march to the AFC Champions League final was not enough to help Saudi Arabia to get above fourth in the AFC club competition’s ranking. (AFP)
Updated 25 December 2017
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Latest AFC rankings give Saudi Arabia clear path for improvement

DUBAI: Last week’s release of the latest AFC club competitions ranking may well have caused a stir in Saudi Arabia with the UAE topping the list while Saudi Arabia came fourth behind South Korea and China, but ahead of Japan and Qatar.
The quarterly rankings were introduced by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2014 and since then has been dominated by two countries, South Korea and the UAE.
So, why is the AFC club competitions ranking important? To begin with, the ranking is used to determine whether clubs from each nation compete in the AFC Champions League or in the less prestigious AFC Cup. It also decides how many teams from each country play in these competitions.
While a national team’s FIFA ranking contributes a weight of 10 percent to this ranking system, it is club performances in AFC competitions that are largely the deciding factor. The ranking allocates points for clubs’ performances in the past four editions of AFC competitions and an average for each country is calculated at a weight of 90 percent, the remaining 10 percent is added from the nation’s FIFA rankings.
Saudi Arabia are the sixth highest ranked Asian country in the latest FIFA rankings, ahead of the AFC rankings toppers the UAE, but as this counted for only a 10th of the weight, this allowed the UAE to trump their Gulf neighbors.
So why, when on the international stage The Green Falcons are looking ever more impressive did Saudi Arabia not finish higher? Club performances in the AFC Champions League is where Saudi falls short. Al-Hilal aside, results have been mediocre for Saudi Arabian teams in Asia’s top club competition over the past few years.
Since 2014, Al-Hilal are the only team from the Kingdom to progress past the quarter-finals, finishing runners-up twice (2014 and 2017) and reaching the semifinal in 2015.
In comparison, the UAE have had two different finalists in the same period (Al-Ahli in 2015 and Al-Ain in 2016), the latter also reached the semifinals in 2014. Dubai based Al-Nasr reached the quarter-finals in 2016 and were only eliminated due to fielding Brazilian striker Wanderley as an Asian player under a fake Indonesian passport.
The AFC Champions League quarter-finals have always featured at least one Emirati club, while all Saudi clubs had failed to advance past the last 16 in 2016.
Al-Hilal’s great AFC Champions League campaign which saw them reach the final before losing to Urawa Reds has boosted Saudi Arabia’s fortunes, but as the 2018 edition kicks-off in February, the Kingdom’s clubs will have their work cut out in pursuit of a higher place in the ranking. This comes after Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, who have both qualified for next year’s competition, have failed to obtain the AFC Club License necessary to participate in next year’s AFC Champions League. The teams below them in the 2016/17 Saudi Pro League table, Al-Raed, Al-Shabab and Al-Tawoun were also unable to obtain the license.
AFC Regulations state that only teams that finish in the top half of the domestic league are eligible to play in AFC competitions, provided they obtain the license. This means Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli will be Saudi Arabia’s only representatives in next year’s competition.
Granted, the two teams were always bound to be the likeliest to progress to advanced stages of the competition, judging by recent history. But by losing two more spots at the continental competition, Saudi’s chances of climbing up the AFC rankings will suffer considerable damage.
Last Tuesday, two-time AFC Champions League winners Al-Ittihad announced that the club is set to receive a SR13 million cash injection from the General Sports Authority. The money will be used to settle outstanding payments owed to former players like Australia’s James Troisi. Unmet financial obligations were the main reason behind the club’s failure to land the AFC license, and the situation at Al-Nassr is no different.
Teams need sustainable sources for revenue and sound management of those funds if they are to retain their once prominent place at the top table of Asian football and propel Saudi further up the AFC Rankings.


Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

Updated 16 February 2019
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Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

  • Descendants of Indian immigrants carry banner for Uruguay in the cricket field

MONTEVIDEO: Every Sunday, close to a statue of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, a group of Indian ex-pats take over a patch of land in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo for a game of cricket.
Tucked in between the Rio de la Plata estuary and the long promenade known as the “rambla” that stretches from one side of Montevideo to the other, Avijit Mukherjee prepares to bat, watched eagerly by his Uruguayan girlfriend.
“I played in my country but with a lot more infrastructure,” said the 28-year-old Mukherjee, whose girlfriend Veronica is the main reason he has stayed in Uruguay.
“There are stadiums and many places to play in India, whereas here we only have one.”
Although cricket was first played in Montevideo by British expat workers even before the foundation of the independent republic in 1828, its practice died out in the 1980s.
But following an influx of Indian immigrants to Uruguay at the turn of the century, cricket steadily returned to Montevideo.
First there were one-off matches. Then, the players organized their own league and even set up a Uruguayan national team.
At the end of last year, Uruguay, whose team was made up almost entirely of Indian expats, finished second in the South American championships in Colombia.
While the cricketers are now established on their little patch of land, their initial appearance was not entirely welcomed by local footballers playing on an adjacent pitch.
“We came like spiders and rebuked them,” recalls Daniel Mosco, a local resident who has been playing football in that field for 30 years.
The issue was quickly resolved, though, and the cricketers agreed to start playing only once the football matches had finished.
With no fixed cricket markings, players use flour to draw white lines.
Now, bat can be heard crashing against ball until sunset.
Even though they’ve been here for years, the shouts of “howzat!” and “wait on” still elicit glances from locals making their way along the rambla.
They make a curious spectacle for people little accustomed with either cricket or India.
Mosco, for one, was surprised that the players speak to each other in English.
And there’s another surprise in the form of 29-year-old doctor Saied Muhammad Asif Raza: he’s from Pakistan.
“Between the governments and in (professional) cricket there are always problems, but the people get on really well and within the team the are no problems whatsoever,” said Asif.
He left his home town of Multan, 10 hours from Islamabad, at 19 and moved to Cuba thanks to a Fidel Castro scholarship.
After returning home, he found he couldn’t readapt to his own culture.
“I didn’t come here to find a better life economically, I had a better life in my country because in my family we didn’t lack for anything,” said Asif.
“The thing is that when you live many years away, nowhere is home, and cricket brings me close to it.”
Although now at home on their small patch, finding something more permanent is crucial to Montevideo’s cricketers.
“We’re looking for a permanent ground,” Beerbal Maniyattukudy, the Uruguayan cricket association’s secretary, told AFP.
“We have 120 players this year. On top of that we’re starting some women’s teams and for now we have 20 people interested. We also have plans for an under-15s league.”
The solution may lie with Uruguay’s most popular football team: Penarol.
Penarol started life as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (CURCC), founded by British railway workers in 1891.
It was a multisport club — but just over 20 years later, its football section broke off and was absorbed by a newly created team, Penarol.
The original club’s cricket section disappeared as football became the main focus — but it was relaunched a week ago.
And crucially, Penarol are planning to build a cricket pitch an hour outside Montevideo.
“When we raised the idea of cricket, there wasn’t much to sort out; everyone was aware of what it meant to the history of the club, we just needed to work out how to make it happen,” said Leonardo Vinas, who is heading up the project.
While many club members signed up to be involved, very few have ever played cricket.
Vinas says the project will take time, not just to spread interest in the sport, but also for the club’s staff to get their heads around the rules of the game.
“Even now, we’re still not clear about certain rules.”