Gabriel Tan4 minute read
Another edition of the AFC Champions League begins on Monday with the familiar scenario of a club from the East Asian region as the current title holders.
In fact, over the past 15 editions of Asia’s premier club football competition, the continent’s eastern region has produced 13 champions in Japan, South Korea, China and Australia.
The West Asia zone has only managed to reign supreme twice: Al Hilal two seasons ago and Al Sadd in 2011.
Yet, given Saudi football’s considerable spending to attract some global superstars to their part of the world, could the face of the ACL be about to radically change? And maybe for an extended period of time?
Famous names aren’t exactly a new thing in Asian football, but previously only aging stars who were past their prime could be attracted.
Xavi, Didier Drogba, Robinho and Andres Iniesta to name a few.
What Saudi football has achieved over the past nine months has never been achieved in Asia before.
Sure, Cristiano Ronaldo – Al Nassr’s prized possession – may be 38 years old, but he’s still arguably in the world-class category, especially when it comes purely to scoring goals and winning matches.
Few would dare claim that the powers of Sadio Mané, Ronaldo’s new attacking partner, are diminishing even after a less impressive campaign with Bayern Munich, while Karim Benzema – Al Ittihad’s new main man in attack – is the current holder of the Ballon d’Or.
Then there’s Al Hilal, who – after missing out on Lionel Messi – have settled for the services of Neymar, who heads a formidable array of foreign talent that also includes Kalidou Koulibaly, Rúben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Yassine Bounou.
On paper, these Saudi Pro League teams now have squads potentially strong enough to compete even in Europe. So is it really a foregone conclusion that one of them will inevitably be crowned Asian champion this season? And in the years to come?
The simple answer to all these questions is “yes”, because it is inconceivable that such players would not sweep away everything that comes before them – at least until they meet in the latter stages of the competition.
But football is never that simple, especially in a knockout competition.
Injuries, the luck of the draw, even the occasional subpar performance from Neymar or Mané and Al Hilal and Al Nassr could find themselves at the mercy of a shock defeat.
Last season, Al Hilal were heavily favorites to win the ACL, even before the arrival of illustrious names.
They had former Manchester United player Odion Ighalo in mind, as well as a plethora of Saudi internationals who had just made an impact at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where the Green Falcons had stunned the future Argentine champions in their opening match of the group stage.
And they found themselves facing an unfancied Urawa Red Diamonds team who currently had just one international in their ranks and just two foreign players.
Somehow, Urawa managed to secure a 2-1 aggregate victory for their third continental title.
It will be up to Eastern teams like Urawa, Yokohama F. Marinos and Ulsan Hyundai, and even Western hopefuls outside of Saudi Arabia like Qatari duo Al Sadd and Al Duhail, to prove they are not out of the equation.
The fact remains that, unless proven otherwise, it is impossible to consider Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Nassr as the favorites to win this edition of the AFC Champions League, as well as those of previous years . come.