OPINION: New AFC Cup format taxing for supporters and clubs

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The draw for next year’s Cup was conducted on Thursday evening and, despite the confusing execution of the draw itself, some enticing matchups have been put on offer for fans. Hong Kong powerhouse South China will travel to the Philippines in the first group stage round to face Global FC and their coach, Leigh Mason, who lifted the United Football League title in his first year of senior coaching. New Radiant will travel to Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia in what might be a big ask for the force of Maldivian football.

Indonesia Super League runners-up Persipura Jayapura and 2004 finalists Al-Wahda, on the other hand, only know the country of origin rather than the actual clubs for two of their group stage opponents, with a third yet to be decided from the play-off rounds. Some of these won’t be decided until a week before the group stage begins. And therein lies a big problem for the organisation of this tournament.

Of the 28 group stage participants, 15 clubs are yet to be finalised, with only five of these coming from the play-off rounds. The others will be decided when the respective member associations’ AFC Champions League participants complete their respective play-off rounds, with a backup team indicated from a second seeded spot if the first seed side progresses through to the ACL group stages.

In the case of AFC Champions League play-off side Bengaluru, the continental governing body seems to have already written off their chances of making the bigger stage’s group stage, having been drawn in the AFC Cup without a declared team to take their place.

The organisation for this new format – which attempts to give more chances to the top clubs of lower seeded member associations – needs to be revised. As it stands, supporters wishing to travel for earlier rounds might start to squirm in their seats as they watch hotel and transport costs increase as dates near. Clubs are in the same boat – and perhaps worse – needing to arrange travel, accommodation, and training facilities.

The tournament, Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA Europa League, is designed for the clubs and countries that are not necessarily at the same scale as their big brothers in the AFC Champions League. The clubs don’t have the same money or staff to organise so much at late notice, let alone the majority of supporters in those regions that I’m sure would love to travel to support their team on the continental stage.

Developing nations are a very important part of the Asian Football Confederation and important for the growth of the region’s larger nations, making it vital that the governing body looks after the fans, clubs and players in these regions. It’s a daunting challenge to organise a successful tournament across such a large continent, but the AFC needs to do everything it can to ensure the prestigious competition is one in which everyone is proud and excited to participate.