20/04/2024
Melbourne City fell at the group stage in this season's Asian Champions League. PHOTO: Melbourne City - Twitter

Melbourne City fell at the group stage in this season's Asian Champions League. PHOTO: Melbourne City - Twitter

A report released today by the Asian/Oceanic arm of FIFPRO argues the competition simply does not provide enough benefit to clubs and players under the current format.

With a history of poor results and little supporter interest, it may be no surprise that the Asian Champions League (ACL) is often a money sink for Australian clubs.

Takuya Yamazaki, Chair of FIFPRO Asia/Oceania argues that the report should be a trigger for more constructive conversation in the region.

“The results [of the report] indicate that the merits do not outweigh the drawbacks for most players and clubs, making it an unsustainable system,” he said.

“However, this does not mean that the future of football in Asia is bleak. On the contrary, we believe that this economically significant region can lead a discussion for truly sustainable competition formats.” 

FIFPRO Asia/Oceania, are the collective international voice of professional footballers in the region, representing over 6000 players and 11 member unions, of which the Australian Professional Footballers Association (PFA) is one.

The full report can be read here.

Benefits do not outweigh the costs

The report argues that for most clubs in Asia, the rewards associated with participation in the Asian Champions League simply do not provide enough incentive for teams to truly invest in the current format.

Prize money is heavily weighted towards the final, meaning that almost all clubs participate at a financial loss until “well beyond the group stages”, according to Beau Busch, Co-Chief Executive of the PFA.

Even despite a 33 percent increase to $60k USD in travel subsidies for away games in the 2023/24 season from the AFC, they often fail to cover the full list of expenses and are not scaled according to the length of a team’s travel requirements.

An Australian club estimated travel and accommodation for a game in Japan cost approximately $100k USD, only for economy class tickets which the report argues is below minimum standards for a high-performance environment.

Not to mention the expenses that come with hosting fixtures, such as the requirement to host officials and AFC delegations in 5-star accommodation, and what Melbourne City estimated to be a $50k USD cost of ensuring advertisement free stadia as per the AFC’s ‘clean stadium’ policy.

This is a far cry from even the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) equivalent competition, where the 16 qualified teams are given $700k USD for their participation in the tournament.

It is even further consequential for the Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur Bulls who are currently competing in the AFC Cup, with the same travel expenses but even fewer rewards.

What is currently being framed as a reward, is proving to be a cost for teams that experience domestic success, faced with the possibility of fines and other punishment if they choose to withdraw their participation.

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Domestic impact

Continental competitions impacting a team’s performance in their domestic league due to fixture congestion is nothing new, however in Asia it’s a more important consideration due to the aforementioned commercial impacts.

The report states than only a quarter of A-League players who responded to the survey (limited to those who competed from 2020-22) said they’d received additional remuneration for their participation in the Champions League.

The frequent and often long travel required for participation in the Champions league leads to more fatigue, more time spent in the injury ‘critical zone’ – defined by playing 45 minutes with less than five days rest – and less time on the training park.

All of which becomes much more relevant when a large portion of A-League players haven’t received additional pay, and it is their domestic league performance which determines their financial outcomes.

The financial burden on the clubs is passed down to the players, who are often not properly compensated or incentivised for their participation in the tournament.

New format already coming

The AFC have already announced sweeping changes to the structure of Asian club football starting in the 2024/25 season, but this was done without consultation with the leagues, clubs or players, which is the sticking point for FIFPRO and the PFA.

The reduction from 40 to 24 teams in the Asian Champions League Elite (ACLE), will reduce the total amount of games played, but increase the matches per team, whilst theoretically ensuring more higher quality matchups in the group/league phase.

Another major change already confirmed is the shift to a centralised tournament for the final eight of the ACLE, the first edition of which will be held in Saudi Arabia.

This new asset for the AFC has the implications of removing the chance for clubs to host their own games in the latter stages of the competition, right around the point where the report says crowds begin to surpass those of domestic league games played in the same venue.

The AFC has already announced a tripling in the prize money for the champions and runners-up to $12m and $6m USD respectively, but the details of travel subsidies and prize money at other levels has not yet been confirmed.

It is the firm hope of the PFA that as part of these announcements, the AFC will ensure profitability for all clubs competing in the ACLE going forwards.

More collaboration with AFC

Whilst this report was commissioned to evaluate the format of the ACL, the chief recommendation is the establishment of a genuine partnership between the players, clubs, leagues and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), for the benefit of all stakeholders in Asian football.

The AFC declined to contribute to the report, however early indications from the PFA suggest that there have been positive first steps towards opening up these lines of dialogue, through FIFPRO.

Beau Busch, Co-Chief Executive of the PFA says that whilst they are optimistic about future discussions with the AFC, they will continue to push for change if their advances are unsuccessful.

“Our focus right now is collaboration with the AFC. The players care deeply about the Champions League so if this initial approach isn’t successful, we will continue to explore how we can positively shape the competition,” he said.

“It is in our shared interest to build an effective working relationship and the hope is that the report can be a catalyst for this.

“The tournament’s success will largely be determined by clubs and players and the report shows the competition places an unsustainable burden on them and that reforms, whilst likely to reduce this to a point, are unlikely to go far enough.”

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