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Asean Club Championship prepares for inaugural season without Malaysian teams

Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

The organisers of the new Asean Club Championship football tournament are preparing to launch this year without the participation of Malaysian clubs.

Football Association of Malaysia general secretary Stuart Ramalingam told SportBusiness today (Monday) that it was “unlikely” Malaysian teams would take part.

Ramalingam said the FAM has several concerns about the tournament, including the potential for fixture congestion and the lack of a strong endorsement for it from the Asian Football Confederation.

Under the original plan for the tournament, two Malaysian teams were to enter the first-round group stage. The competition’s organisers, the Asean Football Federation and agency Sports Partners International, are understood to have prepared an alternative structure without Malaysian teams, scrapping a planned qualification stage.

The tournament will run from April or May – depending on whether the qualification stage happens – until November. A draw and official launch is expected to take place in February or March.

Malaysia is the only one of the Asean Football Federation members invited to enter a team that declined to do so.

The teams committed by the other federations are from: Indonesia (Bali United and Persebaya Surabaya), Thailand (Chiangrai United and Prachuap), Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City), Brunei (Indera SC), Cambodia (Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng), Laos (Lao Toyota), Myanmar (Shan United), Philippines (Ceres-Negros) and Singapore (Tampines Rovers).

Malaysian concerns

Stuart Ramalingam told SportBusiness the FAM was not fundamentally opposed to the ACC and would like to enter the competition in future years if some of its “constructive” criticism was taken on board.

He said: “The AFF Club Championship is a great initiative. We are supporters of the federation and the direction that is being taken. Our feedback is for positive and constructive input.”

He added: “I think there’s a number of things that need to be sorted out and I doubt they can be [in time for this year]. We don’t want the opinion of FAM to be the reason why this doesn’t take off or is delayed, because I think it suits the requirements and needs of some of the Asean countries and the AFF themselves…

“It’s not likely that we’ll participate this year. In following years, if the format fits, yes [we will participate]. My biggest objective is the development of Malaysian football. And we need a format that helps Malaysian football move forward.”

Ramalingam said the current tournament structure creates too many new matchdays in an already crowded calendar for Malaysian clubs.

He said he is concerned about the negative impact on the Malaysian domestic calendar, on Malaysian teams’ performances in AFC continental club competitions, and possibly on national team performances given that the clubs due to take part in the ACC have many national team players.

Ramalingam warned that, by accepting the current structure, Asean federations were risking mistakenly putting commercial objectives ahead of football development objectives: “In the pursuit of commercial opportunities, are we also sacrificing development of the region? Because we are a region that’s playing catch-up to a lot of other regions.”

One solution Ramalingam has suggested is that federations be allowed to enter teams that finish third and fourth in their leagues, instead of the first and second-placed teams or cup winners as currently planned. This would allow the top teams to focus on the established AFC continental competitions.

Asean teams will receive more qualification slots for the AFC competitions from 2021.

In the AFC Champions League, the total number of teams entering the tournament, including at the qualifying stages, is increasing by two to 54, and the number of teams in the tournament proper is increasing by eight to 40. In the second-tier AFC Cup, the number of teams in total is increasing by eight to 56, while the tournament proper will remain at 36 teams.

AFC approval

Ramalingam also said the Malaysian association was concerned that AFC was not fully supportive of the ACC. The level of the confederation’s support for the tournament is unclear.

The AFC declined to comment on the matter last week when contacted by SportBusiness, referring to its statement in December in which it said: “The AFC confirms that it has received a proposal to organise the Asean Club Championship from the Asean Football Federation (AFF). While the AFC welcomes all efforts by the AFF to support the development of club football in the region, there are processes that need to be followed, especially in ensuring all outstanding issues are clarified before the approval.”

The remaining processes required for the ACC to go ahead are understood to include agreement by the AFC to supply match officials, and the submission of application forms to Fifa by the competing federations for permission for their teams to take part in what is a ‘tier 2’ international competition. One industry insider said the latter was a “rubber-stamping exercise”. The AFF says Fifa has already endorsed the ACC.

One consideration for the AFC will have been that the new tournament will compete for eyeballs, attention and commercial revenue with its own continental competitions. This comes at the start of a momentous commercial rights sales cycle for AFC competitions.

The confederation’s commercial rights agent for the 2021-28 period, DDMC Fortis, has guaranteed it a huge uplift in revenue compared to the current cycle, and is facing a tough task to deliver this while turning a profit, given prevailing market conditions. A new property on the market could make the task even tougher.

That being said, Southeast Asian markets account for only a small proportion of the total value of AFC media and sponsorship deals. Asean clubs are not major players in AFC competitions, which are dominated by clubs from more developed and wealthier leagues in north Asia and the Middle East.

Part of the rationale behind the launch of the ACC is to give teams from the region a cross-border competition they have a chance of succeeding in. It is also hoped by the organisers that the competition will stimulate regional rivalries in Southeast Asia, in a way that rarely happens in the AFC competitions because the teams are often pitted against opposition from distant countries.

Calendar challenge

Fitting the new competition into the Asian football calendar has been one of the major challenges for the organisers. A previous Asean club tournament held in 2003 and 2005 fell apart after the AFC became unhappy about fixture congestion.

The Malaysian FA is understood to have taken part in meetings last year at which the calendar was set out and discussed. That calendar and the competition structure – the original structure before adaptation for the withdrawal of the Malaysian teams – is as follows:

April 2020

  • Qualifying stage, featuring four teams playing two, two-legged playoffs for two places in the first round group stage.
  • One team each to come from: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. The 1st leg will be played on April 21 and the 2nd leg on April 25.

May-August 2020

  • Group stage, featuring two groups of six teams each
  • Teams to come from Indonesia (2 teams), Malaysia (2), Thailand (2), Vietnam (2), Myanmar (1), Singapore (1), qualifiers (2).
  • Three games played per matchday
  • Top two teams in each group qualify for semi-finals
    • Matchday 1 – May 9
    • Matchday 2 – May 29
    • Matchday 3 – June 24
    • Matchday 4 – July 11
    • Matchday 5 – August 29

September 2020

  • Semi-finals, both played on September 23
  • Group winners play at home

October-November 2020

  • Final, played over two legs, on October 28 and November 4.

If Malaysian teams do not take part, all four teams due to play in the April qualification round will go straight to the group stage.

Clubs are allowed to register three foreign players in their squads and one additional Asian player. Players from the Asean countries are not regarded as foreign players.

One of the big attractions for participating teams is the prize money on offer. All teams are guaranteed about $140,000 (€126,319). The winners will earn between $400,000 and $450,000, the runners-up just under $300,000, and losing semi-finalists just under $200,000. These are considerable sums in a region where the revenues generated by professional football teams are small compared to more developed markets.