What would it take for a club to pull out of the largest tournament on the continent? When does the balance of protecting the players versus honoring club commitments tip in favor towards one end? How much would a club sacrifice domestically to compete internationally? When all logic points towards a withdrawal, what factors keep clubs from doing so?
In this 2020 season filled with COVID19 concerns, clubs will be forced to answer these questions as they consider their participation in the AFC Champions League. Before the pandemic suspended continental play in February, only a few Champions league matches could be completed. Nearly 6 months later, the tournament has yet to play another game. On top of that, no Chinese team has played a single match in the tournament.
Despite the fact that the tournament was originally designed to be played out over a nine month period, with only a third of that time remaining, the AFC is looking to get things started again.
How Korea Has Had No Positive Cases in Professional Sports
Sports leagues around the world are handling themselves differently in the face of the COVID19 pandemic. From spectator-less stadiums to ‘player bubbles’ at neutral grounds, there are quite a few methods being tested. Regardless of safety measures, American sports leagues are finding cracks in the fundamentals of their theories.
On the bright side, Asia’s longest running league this year, the K League, has yet to see one confirmed case. Players have been tested daily since February, are under strict watch, and are essentially in a bubble in all aspects of life.
Two major advantages are also playing a key role in their success. First off, the entire country is on the same page when tackling the pandemic. It helps local sports leagues’ players, coaches, and personnel remain safe when those around them are all working together. Second, in Korea’s top 4 leagues, there is only one team that isn’t accessible by bus. Jeju United, recently relegated to Korea’s 2nd-tier league, the K League 2, is the only team that requires air travel to the island it represents. No matter the distances, teams are able to board their bus from their contained clubhouses, and have no outside contact while en route to their stadium for the day.
What the AFC is Proposing
The AFC has not reduced the amount of games despite the shortened time table, instead changing the schedule of the games to this fall. Unlike before, where teams would have ACL matches midweek between league matches, the new schedule will make teams essentially place their league matches on hold to remain isolated at the neutral ground until the group stage is finished.
Additionally, to mimic a bubble-like atmosphere, the AFC is currently trying to secure neutral grounds for each group to play out their games. With 14-day quarantine periods a universal measure in personal safety, teams are looking at flying in 2 weeks in advance, staying for about 2-3 weeks for games, and then making the trip back home where they will spend another 14 days under quarantine.
Right there, the AFC is asking teams to take a six-week break from their local leagues and fixtures in all competitions. It gets worse for the teams that advance. Since each group will have a neutral location, the AFC will have to choose another site for the knockout stages. The knockout stage will be played in one location with single-elimination matches instead of the normal two-legged home and away ties. Here is the latest proposed schedule from the AFC to complete the tournament in 2020. Under this proposal, the East region group stage will be contested in the final two weeks of October. The teams that advance to the knockout round will then travel to a new centralized venue and have matches throughout November. The 2020 AFC Champions League will then culminate on December 5th with the final between the East and West region champions. All things considered, a club could be away from their home country for at least two months. With all the domestic fixture pile-up in this season, the scheduling headaches could be endless.
Barriers to Exit the Competition in 2020
Noting that scheduling mentioned above, clubs will have to consider financial penalties and suspensions if they are thinking about a withdrawal. Had a decision been made before the group stages were finalized, numbers would have been about 50% less. However at this point, any team that drops out is subject to a $200,000USD fine. On top of that, the AFC can add on financial damages to the tournament from lost sponsor revenue. At a time when sponsors are not getting a return on their investment, the AFC could use these teams as a scapegoat to funnel money back to the sponsors.
For the larger clubs, this fine would sting but not be an end to club operations. For smaller clubs in smaller leagues, this is almost certainly a number that will break them to the point of dismantling.
The major sting for the larger clubs would be the suspensions. Some clubs count on the ACL being part of their season and use that target as part of their strategy when building a squad.They would have to not only sit the rest of the 2020 season out as they wished, but also be faced with an ACL ban for the next two years. Teams like Ulsan Hyundai, Jeonbuk Hyundai, and Shanghai SIPG, to name a few, have invested heavily in creating a strong squad to compete in Asia; an ACL ban would make their heavy wage budget suddenly overblown.
How Can Leagues Survive?
The 16 teams representing the East Asia region come from 6 different leagues all in different countries; Australia (3 teams), China (4), Japan (3), Korea (4), Malaysia (1), and Thailand (1). At minimum, teams would have to make up a handful of games for their ACL representative, but the scheduling would obviously stretch to their opponents as well. Assuming any given league has all three or four teams return home after the group stages, the rescheduling would already be a mess trying to coordinate 20+ games. This would be even tougher as it seems more than likely to happen towards the very end of the season.
That is not the end of the road for the rescheduling headache. Currently Jeonbuk and Ulsan are both in the semifinals of Korea’s FA Cup. Add another competition to the headache, even if we assume that teams are coming home after the group stages. The headache continues for those leagues with AFC powerhouse teams that could make a run further into the knockout stage.
A Realistic Proposal for a Condensed AFC Champions League
The AFC Champions League is a great tournament and stretches farther than any other continental football competition in the world. However, we are dealing with a pandemic that has changed everything around us. The AFC, too, needs to be willing to adapt the competition to realistically fit this moment .
Let the proposal be heard loud and clear. First, give all participating leagues warning to leave December free for continental competition. This will give leagues ample amount of time to move their games forward to finish before the start of the tournament. The A-League, which spans over two calendar years, would have plenty of time to work out a schedule allowing its three representing clubs time off.
Second, draw a clean slate and abandon the group stages. This not only saves time for clubs, players, and leagues but also adds more excitement to the tournament and gives the smaller teams a chance to make a big run. A knockout competition of 32 countries would make it twice as large as the World Cup knockout stage.
The KFA should be bidding on hosting these types of events. Without spectators, stadium size is irrelevant. Quality of the pitch, facilities and player safety would be the only things to consider. Take a look at this list of over 80 soccer stadiums in Korea. Most of them currently don’t host a team and quite a few of the largest stadiums have practice fields next to them. With the abundance of pandemic-tested hotels across the whole country, teams would also be able to quarantine themselves while K League clubs could still carry on with their games. Alleviating the burden of having 4 teams out of play for six weeks should give more than enough motivation to get the KFA on board.
Lastly, the AFC should understand that sponsors came with a contract in mind. The world will beat COVID19. In our post COVID landscape, we are still going to want a strong and entertaining AFC Champions League tournament. There is a way for the AFC to create a tournament that works for fans, clubs, and sponsors. Instead of sticking to a travel-heavy schedule that could be unsafe and inconvenient to all clubs, the AFC should create an exciting one-off spectacle in December that can please fans and sponsors while allowing clubs time to prepare safely.