With the exception of Adelaide United Australian teams have struggled to make their mark in the Asian Champions League, a theatre where it is vital the start to perform consistently. The question is are Australian teams being left behind?
Two of Australia’s main rivals in Asia on the international stage South Korea and Japan have won the tournament on the most occasions. South Korea with 10 victories and 6 runners up places, Japan have had 5 victories and 3 runners up places. Saudi Arabia come in third on the rankings with 4 wins and 7 runners up places. Six other nations have won the tournament on one or more occasions in the competitions two incarnations as the Asian Club Championship and the tournament it evolved into the Asian Champions League.
Australia sits with Malaysia, Syria, and Oman who have had one team make the final only to lose. Iraq have had teams make two finals and lose.
It is however the reigning Champions Guangzhou Evergrande who many Australians should be watching. Guangzhou was one of the first fully professional football clubs in China after the Apollo Group took over the club in 1993. They were relegated from the top flight in 1998. An investigation followed and they found that four players were in collusion with gambling groups. It was only in 2006 when the Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Group took over the club that they were able to realize the ambition of gaining promotion when the club won the 2007 division title and entry to the Chinese Super League. However they were soon relegated when it was discovered by the police that the Guangzhou General manager Yang Xu paid CNY 200,000 to Shanxi Luhu’s General manager Wang Po to secure a win at home and that Guangzhou’s Vice-President’s Wu Xiaodong and Xie Bin knew about it.The offending participants were sentenced to jail for fraud.
As recent as 2010 Evergrande Real Estate Group took over the club with a fee of ¥100 million and Xu Jiayin, chairman of Evergrande Real Estate Group, said that they would pump funds into the transfer market. That year they picked up the League One championship for the second time and returned to Super League.
With money available the club strengthened its squad with the purchase of quality Argentinean Dario Conca and Brazilian Cléo. The team was promoted to the Super League in the first year, they clinched the league title in late September 2011 with 4 games to go. In 2012 they managed to attract former World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi and the success continued. The club won the 2012 Chinese Super League, the 2012 Chinese FA Cup, the 2013 Chinese Super League and the 2013 AFC Champions League.
Now they believe that they can win the Club World Cup that started this week in Morocco. The Asian and Chinese title-holders play Egypt’s Al Ahly in Agadir on Saturday with the winner facing the daunting task of a semi final against European powerhouses Bayern Munich.
Yet their boasts are not idle ones, money has allowed the club to sign quality imports. Dario Conca is making his final appearance for Guangzhou before returning to Brazil’s Fluminense. That speaks volumes for the standard of player the Chinese Super League is able to attract, players of quality still with healthy careers ahead of them.
In 24 year old Brazilian Elkeson they have a player of true quality. Having been fortunate to commentate a game in which he played his work ethic, ruthlessness in front of goal and his unselfish play is a key component to the team’s success and is bound to assure him a similar move at some stage. However the price will have to be right with Evergrande having reportedly paid EUR5.7million to Botafago for his services for four years. 24 goals in 28 games confirms his quality and the value of the investment.
In addition to Conca and Elkeson you have Muruqi another Brazilian who just won the AFC Champions League Top goalscorer 2013, the AFC Champions League Most Valuable Player 2013 and the AFC Foreign Player of the Year 2013.
The Chinese Super League started in 2004, The Hyundai A-League started the same year. There is no doubt the Chinese population and economy makes comparisons unfair, but the fact that one team can attract such quality and have become so dominant, thanks to serious financial backing shows just how much the game in Australia has to do to compete and keep up with other nations in the AFC.
Australia has five Brazilian players playing in the A-League, Guilherme Finkler, Sidnei Sciola Moraes, Tiago Calvano, Henrique, and Cassio, as good a players as they maybe, none has a pedigree close to that of Elkeson; then again none cost as much to sign. Even the much heralded and awarded Marcos Flores from Argentina, who has set the A-League alight, cannot match his compatriot Dario Conca. The league may well be young, but it has to be hoped that eventually A-League clubs are owned by companies who have the amount of money needed to run a football club without complaining about the losses, and who can attract a quality of young player who can be sold on to a bigger club to continue his career.
These have to be the goals if Australian teams are to realistically compete in the Asian Champions League in the coming years. Guangzhou Evergrande have proven what is possible, should they meet Bayern Munich and beat them in the semi final no doubt many outside of the A-League will be looking at them as a club to match. It is time for the A-League to try and kick on to that next level after 10 years and keep progressing the competition.