Middle East clubs have fallen out of love with the AFC Champions League

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Al-Rayyan's Mohammed Alaaeldin (C) views for the ball against Al-Hilal's Yasir Shahrani during the AFC Champions League football match between Saudi Al-Hilal and Qatari Al-Rayyan. (AFP)
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Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal fans watch the AFC Champions League football match between Al-Hilal and Qatari Al-Rayyan. (AFP)
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Al-Ain FC's Japanese defender Tsukasa Shiotani (C) and Emirati defender Mohamed Ahmed (R) vie for the ball against Esteghlal FC's Senegalese midfielder Mame Baba Thiam (L) during their AFC Champions League group (D) match at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain on March 6, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 March 2018

Middle East clubs have fallen out of love with the AFC Champions League

DUBAI: In Europe, the Champions League is the ultimate prize. Merely participating in it, or even just qualifying for its playoff stages, has come to be seen as an achievement in itself.
Ever since the competition replaced the old European Cup at the start of the 1992-93 season, it has changed Europe’s football landscape.
Finishing in “Champions League places” has replaced winning trophies as the target for all but the most elite of clubs. In South America, winning the Copa Libertadores has always been, and remains, the be-all-and-end-all for all top clubs.
And even in Africa, the CAF Champions League gets the blood going like no other competition.
And then there is Asia. While there is no doubting that the AFC Champions League remains the premier continental competition, one in which top regional teams such as Al-Hilal and Al-Ain continue to perform credibly, there exists an underlying, inexplicable apathy from West Asian clubs toward the tournament.
Perhaps it is born out of an inferiority complex to East Asia teams.
The first three seasons of AFC Champions League were claimed by Al Ain (2002-03) and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad (2004, 2005). Since then, however, no team from West Asia has lifted the trophy in 12 attempts.
Early indications are that this will not change in 2018.
The performances of Middle Eastern and Gulf teams in the competition so far have been poor to say the least.
Emirati clubs in particular have fared adequately at best, and dismally at worst. Al-Wahda and Al-Wasl are respectively bottom of their groups, having failed to collect a single point between them. Al-Ain are third in Group D after three draws. Domestic champions Al-Jazira, having faced Real Madrid in the Club World Cup semifinal, are in the best position of the Arabian Gulf League (AGL) teams, in second place — and a qualification spot ­— in Group A.
Of the two Saudi teams, Al-Ahli lead Al-Jazira by three points after two wins and a draw. Al-Hilal, a team that prides itself as the most decorated in Asian football, have struggled and are currently bottom of Group D, a point behind Al-Ain, the team they eliminated in last year’s quarterfinals.
Indeed, Al-Hilal’s loss to Al-Esteghlal last month cost Ramon Diaz his job at the club that still leads the Saudi league table. That the two Saudi teams that finished third and fourth in the 2016-17 league table, Al-Nassr and two-time winners Al-Ittihad, were barred from this year’s competition for logistical reasons, has hardly helped.
Only Qatari clubs have exceeded expectations, with Al-Duhail leading their group, while traditional rivals Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan sit second in their respective groups.
While the prestige of being champions of Asia is craved, the financial rewards ($4 million for the winners) and television money pale into insignificance when compared with the pots of gold on offer on other continents, and even compared to the salaries the Gulf clubs pay to their highest earning foreign players.
For that reason, among many others, the guarantee of domestic glory takes priority for some clubs over the remote possibility of continental glory against the powerhouses of the East.
And for some, other carrots are often dangled.
Last year, Al-Jazira all but abandoned the pursuit of Champions League progress in favor of securing the AGL title and the certainty of taking part in the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup.
Al-Ain, seemingly running away with the Emirati league title, might not have a similarly modest outlook, but will surely already be eyeing potential once-in-a-lifetime clashes against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City next November in Abu Dhabi.
Rightly or wrongly, but somewhat understandably, the prospect of sharing a stage with Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is a far more mouthwatering one than another quarterfinal or semifinal against familiar regional opposition.
And that raises perhaps the most existential issue with the current AFC Champions League format. Familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly boredom.
Every new edition of the AFC Champions League increasingly throws up groups consisting of teams from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran and Uzbekistan. More often than not, those teams are the same as previous years, and the match-ups are repeats of recent seasons.
Lack of participation from countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq, owing to licensing issues, no doubt adds to the sense of ennui and lack of eclecticism around the competition’s West Asia half.
It might be too early to write off the Arab teams halfway through the group stage of this year’s AFC Champions League. But the trend of recent seasons does not offer too much encouragement either.
The continent’s most coveted prize is in danger of losing its shine in western Asia.


‘It will go crazy’: Finland close to 1st major soccer finals

Updated 15 min 49 sec ago

‘It will go crazy’: Finland close to 1st major soccer finals

  • All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship
  • It is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants — better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers — thought would never arrive

HELSINKI: The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland.
Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising, though, like never before.
On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time in its history. All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship.
After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants — better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers — thought would never arrive.
It is one that could transcend soccer, changing the mentality of a nation.
“There are always skeptics — with a sort of ‘Ah, they are never going to do it anyway’ feeling — in more or less everything we do, whether it is music, anything,” said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champion HJK Helsinki. “The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgement of an achievement do we go and support it.
“For what this will mean, it is more important mentally than factually.”
Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, too — think of Jari Litmanen, the silky playmaker for Ajax and Barcelona, and Sami Hyypia, the defensive stalwart at Liverpool. Yet getting to a World Cup or European Championship has been beyond them, despite more than 80 years of trying.
Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.
So what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as coach has plenty to do with it.
Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ‘90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players. One midfielder, Roman Eremenko, received a two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2016; another, Perparim Hetemaj, would go on to retire in early 2018 to focus on his club career.
Kanerva took a pragmatic view of the team, picking players according to their individual strengths rather than a pre-existing style and reverting to a straightforward 4-4-2 formation. His approach was based on hard work and strong defensive shape, and relied on the country’s most high-profile player — striker Teemu Pukki — poaching some goals at the other end.
Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve.
The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.
In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.
“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, general secretary of the Football Association of Finland. “All the other things in our sports we have managed to do, but this is something that’s still separating us from being a real sports country.”
Finland’s underperformance on the international stage was bought into sharp focus by Iceland, a tiny Nordic brother with a population of just 330,000, reaching both Euro 2016 and last year’s World Cup.
Casagrande recalls speaking to his colleagues at the Icelandic FA, asking them: “So what’s your secret?“
“It didn’t help,” Casagrande said, “when everyone was saying, ‘You are losing all the games and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?’“
Iceland’s rise was based on a strong collective effort combined with a sprinkle of stardust by its one standout player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Finland is pretty much the same.
While goalkeeper Lukas Hradecký, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, gets plenty of plaudits, most of the spotlight falls on Pukki, the hard-working striker who has scored seven goals in qualifying and made a strong start to his first season in the Premier League with Norwich.
“Teemu Pukki is really somebody who everybody seems to love,” said Riihilahti, who also played in England’s top division with Crystal Palace, “and has been adopted as the Finnish savior who is bringing us to the promised land.”
When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue.
Expect more of the same if the country’s soccer players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.
“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”