Sunday, June 16

Want to Play in the Asian Champions League? It Will Cost You.

At least nobody can accuse Asia’s soccer authorities of failing to sweat the small stuff. It would be easy to overlook the little things, after all, when their job is to nurture and promote the most popular sport on the planet for the benefit of almost five billion people spread across a third of the world’s landmass.

In many ways, then, it is admirable that the Asian Football Confederation (A.F.C.) can still find the time to dictate precisely which water bottles, with which labels, fans should be allowed to carry into stadiums. That kind of attention to detail should reassure you that soccer’s future — from Beirut to Beijing, and Ulaanbaatar to Hobart — is in safe hands.

Unfortunately, that is not quite the picture that emerges from a report, commissioned by soccer’s global players’ union, FIFPro, assessing the benefits and shortcomings of Asia’s most prestigious club competition, the Asian Champions League. Instead, the report documents a tournament that acts as an almost perfect microcosm of soccer’s general direction across the globe.

There is plenty of the sort of officious nit-picking beloved of sports authorities. As well as addressing the crucial issue of water bottles, the A.F.C.’s “clean stadium” requirements — the rules that decree that arenas for Champions League games must be free of nonapproved advertising — take on pressing matters like the logos on backpacks and the branding on bottle caps.

The A.F.C. appears to be far less concerned with whether the tournament actually works for the clubs involved. According to estimates from two competing teams, enforcing the clean stadium rules alone costs $50,000 a game.

Traveling for away matches is even more expensive. In Europe, teams habitually travel first class — for what, in the report, is described as “high performance purposes,” a logic that sadly does not apply to journalists at The New York Times — but the sheer geography of Asia means that is not an option. The average distance traveled for a road game in the Asian Champions League is about 2,300 miles.

That makes even flying economy notably burdensome: One Australian team reported that it had spent $95,000 to transport and house its players and staff members for a single fixture in Japan, substantially more than the $60,000 subsidy the A.F.C. provides until the later rounds of the competition.

That is where some of the 40 clubs to have made the group stage will be able to make up the losses they have accrued along the way. But only some of them: Half of the $15 million prize money is awarded to the eventual winner and runner-up. The losing semifinalists might make $500,000. FIFPro’s findings suggest the bulk of the teams lose significant money just by taking part.

“The outcome is that the competition is least affordable for those clubs that are eliminated early, which also tend to be clubs from smaller or less-developed markets,” the report said. Urawa Reds, the Japanese club that won last year’s edition, reported to the union that only the finalists would earn enough prize money to recover their costs.

Presumably, then, it is good news that the A.F.C. has already decided to change the way the competition works. Starting later this year, the Asian Champions League will consist of only 24 teams.

Instead of the traditional home-and-away matchups in the knockout rounds, the quarterfinals onward will borrow a form recognizable from the later stages of international tournaments: one-and-done games held in a single country over the course of little more than a week. It should be no surprise to anyone that, for the first five years, that final stage will be held in Saudi Arabia.

The plan, as it happens, is a good one. And given the sudden influx of household names into Saudi club sides over the last year, the timing is impeccable, too.

Fewer teams means each game in the new format should be of a higher quality. Concentrating the later rounds in one location will allow for more meetings between teams from the east and west of the continent. (Currently, the best of Japan and South Korea cannot meet the powerhouses from Iran and Saudi Arabia until the final.) The teams who make it that far will not have to plan, or pay for, multiple long-haul trips.

The comparatively scant detail that has emerged, though, does not offer encouraging reading for anyone hoping this might be a chance to make the competition work for everyone. The A.F.C. cannot do much about how large Asia happens to be, but it has also not offered any reassurances about whether it intends to increase travel budgets, or reduce its demands for partner-approved stadiums.

What is known — it was very much in the headline when the transformation was announced — is that the winner of the tournament will receive around $12 million. The runner-up will receive $6 million.

As far as FIFPro is concerned, there is a good chance that much of the rest of the “value associated with the climactic later rounds accrue to the A.F.C. and the host nation.” The final tournament will be a tantalizing property to sell to broadcasters. Nobody has said, as yet, how much of the revenue it might generate would go to the competition’s clubs.

That would, of course, be a considerable missed opportunity. It is the A.F.C.’s stated aim to help spread and improve and support the game across Asia. It has, in the changes to its most prestigious competition, the perfect chance to do just that.

And yet there is a very good chance it will reject it, preferring instead to shower riches upon those clubs that need them least, while passing whatever benefits should arrive from the new format onto a handful of the strongest, wealthiest teams in its strongest, wealthiest leagues.

It will do so because of the abiding belief, held across soccer’s executive class, that growth in soccer is a product of pulling rather than pushing, and that change is effected from the top down, not the bottom up. A vast majority of the clubs and countries that fall under the aegis of Asian soccer’s leaders will be locked out and left behind, the authorities’ interest only drawn when the wrong type of water bottle, with the wrong type of label, tarnishes the world they have created.


Xabi Alonso could really do without this. He is three months and 12 games from delivering a first Bundesliga title to Bayer Leverkusen. He could yet end his first full season in management by winning the championship, the German cup and the Europa League. The economics of modern soccer dictate that this is not really meant to happen.

You have to go back some way to remember a more auspicious start to a managerial career: to Pep Guardiola’s glorious debut campaign at Barcelona in 2009, maybe, which culminated in a Spanish title and the Champions League trophy; or beyond, to José Mourinho’s starburst at Porto six years earlier.

Sadly, through no fault of his own, Alonso can now expect an achievement that should be celebrated on its own merits will be relegated — at least in terms of how it is presented — to little more than an audition. Everything that Alonso delivers to Leverkusen in the coming weeks will be framed as advancing or diminishing his candidacy to be the next manager of Liverpool or Bayern Munich.

That is just as much in the nature of modern soccer as the economic reality that Alonso is so spectacularly defying, of course, but it is a shame, too. What he could achieve at Leverkusen this season deserves to be celebrated for what it is, not for where it might yet lead.

It is no surprise that Manchester United has alighted on Dan Ashworth as the ideal candidate to spearhead the club’s (belated) modernization. His work — with West Bromwich Albion, England, Brighton and his current team, Newcastle — has been undeniably impressive.

Nor is it a surprise that Newcastle is so keen not to lose him that it has placed him on almost two years of what the British call gardening leave: Essentially, Newcastle has let Ashworth stop working but will keep him from taking another job by paying him to do nothing until his contract expires. Newcastle has suggested that only compensation of $25 million or so would persuade the club to change its mind.

What is a bit strange — and this is a genuine inquiry — is why Newcastle should be asking for a fee at all. Ashworth has a desk job, and wants to go and do another desk job. It is hard to think of another industry where his current employer would be able to demand money from a rival firm in order to allow that to happen.

We accept transfer fees when they pertain to players, of course, because that is the way soccer has always done business. Managers, too, increasingly have release clauses in their contracts. Whatever form they take, though, they are effectively sums of compensation designed to convince a club to tear up a contract.

When they apply to people who are not present on the field in any way, though, to those squadrons of employees who exist near or over the line where soccer becomes less a game and more a business, they feel more than a little discordant; jarring enough, certainly, to make you wonder why they exist at all.