Melbourne City will play their first ACL game on home soil. (PHOTO: Melbourne City)

Asian Champions League football finally arrives back on Australian shores tonight in a phase of massive transition for the Asian game.

Australian fans will get their first look at a whole raft of changes made to the Asian club ecosystem since the Champions League (ACL) group stage was last played on home soil three and a half years ago.

But for the first time, the ACL is just one of three Asian trophies that Australian teams will be fighting for this season.

Here’s everything you need to know for the start of the Asian continental season in 2023/24.

Where has the Champions League been?

Not since Sydney FC played out a 2-2 draw against Jeonbuk Hyundai at Jubilee Oval back in March 2020, has a group-stage game been played on Australian soil.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep through Asia, increasing health risks and untenable transport, particularly in China forced the suspension of competition.

When play eventually resumed seven months later, it took the form of a centralised tournament in Qatar.

Sydney FC drew 1-1 with Yokohama F Marinos on the final matchday of the group stage in 2020, failing to qualify for the knockout stage in Qatar. PHOTO: Sydney FC

A similar format was to be used for the 2021 edition, however, a four-month suspension of the A-League meant that the finals series would overlap with the new season’s Champions League.

As a result, Sydney FC, Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar all forfeited their place in Asia.

Sydney FC did get to host a qualification match in 2022, beating Filipino outfit Kaya-Iloilo 5-0 at Jubilee Oval.

However, they and Melbourne City were still made to travel to Vietnam and Thailand respectively to compete in their centralised group stages.

Finally, the last six months have been absent of Asian competition as the AFC decided to transition to a spring-autumn (southern hemisphere) schedule, aligning more closely with Europe.

AFC Champions League

Melbourne City

When Melbourne City walk out against Japanese side Kofu at AAMI Park, they do so as the sole Australian representatives in the ACL.

The ACL begins with 40 teams, split into 10 groups of four teams each.

Kofu may be City’s easiest opponent on paper, a J2 team who qualified through their historic triumph in the Emperor’s Cup.

City will run into a familiar face when they come up against Thai champions Buriram United, where Australian Arthur Papas currently resides.

Former Newcastle Jets boss Arthur Papas is the technical director and current caretaker manager at Buriram United. PHOTO: Newcastle Jets – Twitter.

The final team drawn in Group H alongside City are Chinese team Zhejiang Professional.

Of the 40 teams participating in the group stage, 10 group winners and the six best runners-up will progress to the round of 16.

From there, two-legged ties will be played home and away all through the knockout round (including the final) until a champion is crowned.

The other factor to note is that the ACL can essentially be considered two separate East and West Asian competitions until the last remaining team from each region meets in the final.

The vast distances between East and West nations make regular travel unrealistic, keeping them separate until the later stages of AFC competition.

Unfortunately, this means that City will have to go all the way to the final for Aussie fans to have any chance to see the recent flurry of Saudi-Arabian stars play an ACL game in Australia.

A-League’s decline in Asia

For the first time, Australia will have representatives competing in the AFC Cup, the second tier of Asian club football.

This is due to Australia’s rapid decline in the AFC Competition Rankings.

The current rankings system takes into account the performance of clubs in AFC competitions over a rolling four-year period.

Over the last decade, the A-League has been propped up by Western Sydney’s remarkable victory in the 2014 Asian Champions League.

Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory’s run to the knockout stage in 2016 was also a profitable year.

To make matters worse, Australia’s absence in 2021 and the AFC’s decision not to award points for the disrupted 2020 season has left the A-League at a significant disadvantage.

Australia’s AFC Competition Ranking has fallen dramatically over the past eight years. PHOTO: Western Sydney Wanderers – Twitter. GRAPHIC: Lachlan Avil.

The upside of this ranking change is that Australia has gained access to the secondary competition, the AFC Cup, the ethos of which has always been to allow mid-tier nations a legitimate chance at a continental title.

It may be tempting to liken the AFC Cup to the Europa League, both as second-tier competitions, however, they operate in a very different manner.

The Europa League includes teams from Europe’s top leagues and offers a repechage for some sides eliminated in the early stages of the Champions League.

However, the AFC Cup offers no such second chances to top teams and goes even further to not allocate any spots to nations placed in the top five of the East and West AFC rankings.


Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur FC

Both Central Coast and Macarthur will begin their campaigns away from home, clearly representing Australia’s best chance at an Asian trophy this season.

Given the absence of teams from Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Korea, supporters of the Mariners and Bulls should be reasonably optimistic about their chances of a deep run in Asia.

The structure of the AFC Cup is one of the most convoluted in world football and changes year to year based on which nations are excluded from competition.

The fatigue and financial burden of travelling across Asia is recognised even more dramatically than in the ACL as teams are split into not just East and West, but five different ‘zones’.

Because of this, it’s easier to think about the AFC Cup in two different stages, the zonal stage and the finals.

In the zonal stage, the West, South, Central, East and ASEAN zones all compete internally to crown their zonal champions.

The champions of each zone will then compete in a knockout format for the AFC Cup, with the West zone champion receiving a bye through to the final.

Once all the zonal champions are decided, they compete against each other for the AFC Cup. PHOTO: Central Coast Mariners – Twitter. GRAPHIC: Lachlan Avil.

Different zones employ slightly varied methods to find their zonal champions, but for the purpose of the Mariners and the Bulls, we’ll be focusing on the ASEAN zone.

The ASEAN zone starts with 12 teams split up into three groups of four teams each, competing home and away like a normal group stage.

The champions of each group and the best-placed runners-up will compete in single-leg zonal semi-finals and final to determine the ASEAN zonal champion.

Once the zonal phase is complete, the East, Central, South and ASEAN zonal champions will compete in two-legged ‘inter-zonal’ semi-finals and final.

The winner of that inter-zonal final will face off against the West zonal champion for the AFC Cup.

Central Coast have been drawn in Group G alongside Malaysian side Terengganu FC, Stallion from the Philippines and Bali United of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, Macarthur is matched against Shan United of Myanmar, Phnom Penh Crown of Cambodia and Filipino side Cebu FC in Group F.

AFC Women’s Club Championship

Sydney FC

Moving towards the AFC’s instalment of a Women’s Champions League for the 2024/25 season, Sydney FC will participate in the fourth edition of the AFC Women’s Club Championship.

The competition will consist of eight champions from some of Asia’s best women’s leagues.

Two groups of four teams will compete in a single round-robin held at centralised locations in November, with each group winner to meet in a one-off final at some point in 2024.

The Sky Blues will travel to Uzbekistan to take on local champions FC Nasaf, South Korea’s Hyundai Steel Red Angels and Bam Khatoon FC of Iran.

Melbourne Victory are the only other Australian team to compete in the AFC Women’s Club Championship, in the inaugural 2019 edition. PHOTO: Melbourne Victory.

Before we change the system all over again

As mentioned, Asian club football is going through a period of massive transitional change, not just because of where we’ve come from, but also where we’re going.

The AFC has already announced that the 2024/25 season will have three tiers of men’s competition: Champions League Elite (ACLE), Champions League 2 (ACL2), and the Challenge League (ACGL).

The top 24 teams in the ACLE will try their hand at the new ‘Swiss’ format which is also being adopted next year for the European Champions League, whilst a centralised tournament will return for the final eight, in an effort to reduce the divide between the East and West.

Australia has already benefitted greatly from a new competition ranking system that considers the last eight years of competition rather than four, which will be used for qualification in this A-League season beginning next month.

More prize money, travel allowances, foreign player spots and the establishment of a proper women’s competition round of the most significant of the planned changes.

Whilst not yet confirmed by the AFC, it has been suggested that the A-League will receive one automatic place in both the ACLE and the ACL2.

Match Details (AEST)

Wednesday 20 September:

Melbourne City v Kofu 8pm, AAMI Park, Melbourne.

Terengganu v Central Coast Mariners 10pm, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium, Malaysia.

Thursday 21 September:

Shan United v Macarthur FC 10pm, Thuwunna Football Stadium, Myanmar.

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