RIYADH: The message on the ad list is clear: “Bigger than ever”.
And this year’s AFC Champions League is just that, the biggest tournament ever – with eight more teams added, bringing the total number of group stage participants to 40.
This trend of expansion has been observed across various continental and world competitions in recent years, with varying degrees of success.
The AFC Asian Cup and European Championships have grown from 16 teams to 24. The FIFA World Cup will see an increase from 32 teams to 48 for the 2026 tournament in the United States, Canada and in Mexico, while the FIFA Women’s World Cup will drop from 24 teams. 32 teams for the 2023 edition in Australia and New Zealand.
Then, of course, there’s the expanded UEFA Champions League, which was recently announced to appease the so-called Dirty Dozen.
Bigger is the mantra of football leaders around the world, but bigger doesn’t always equal better.
However, based on early evidence from this year’s AFC Champions League, the AFC appears to have clinched gold with its new format.
One of the common arguments against expanding tournaments is that the extra teams added will dilute the quality, resulting in mismatched matchups and explosive score lines.
But in the revamped AFC 2021 Champions League, the addition of additional teams rejuvenated what was quickly becoming a tired format.
All that is currently being talked about in Asian football circles is the Tajik champions killing giants, Istiklol FC.
As each match in the group stage progressed, their performances and achievements became more remarkable, and they sparked new life and interest across the continent.
This writer has a weekly spot on a national football radio show in Australia, and for the past three weeks the main topic of conversation has been Istiklol. The nine-time Tajik champions are making waves and putting the AFC Champions League front and center where it wouldn’t normally be.
The Australians have a love-hate relationship with the AFC Champions League at the best of times, and like the United Arab Emirates, they are sleeping in sleep to demote to the second tier AFC Cup after years of poor performance of A-League clubs on the continent.
Who would have thought that Istiklol and the quality of Dzhalilov cousins would be such a hot topic of conversation? But here we are, and we wouldn’t be here without the expanded format.
What the extended format has done, for the most part, is make every part count. With only the group winners now guaranteed to advance to the round of 16, there is a bounty placed on every game and every point. Indeed, on each objective too.
In previous years, when the first two progressed, the result was often known with a few games to lose, which led to a rather boring conclusion to the group stage. No more.
Determining who finished first came back to the last game in three of the five groups in the AFC West zone, while in the other two there was still a lot to play as teams, especially Al-Wahda, needed wins to get there. as many points as possible. possible to pass as one of the top three teams ranked second.
That meant massive losses, and they’re not much bigger than Qatari duo Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail.
Al-Sadd, coached by former Barcelona legend Xavi, would normally have advanced comfortably with three wins and 10 points, but was instead the first big name to fall victim to the new format which demands more.
For Al-Sadd, a team with serious aspirations to win the entire tournament and with the talent to do so, getting knocked out in the group stage is a blow and will surely lead Xavi to be under pressure to keep his job after another. failure. in their ultimate quest to return to the top of Asian football.
Al-Duhail, seven-time champion of Qatar over the past decade, was sentenced to a missed penalty from Michael Olunga – who was otherwise the peerless player in the group stage with nine impressive goals in six games – because they could only manage a draw against Al-Ahli when a win was needed to advance.
Their inability to move forward has given Al-Hilal a lifeline, with the 2019 champions scratching their teeth after losing their last group stage game with Shabab Al-Ahli meaning they have edged Al ahead. -Sadd in third tiebreaker – goals scored.
The fact that the fate of three teams continued until the very last seconds of the final matches added a tremendous amount of tension and drama that ordinarily there would have been none.
That alone is a big check mark for the new format.
Until we see what happens when the East Zone group stage takes place in June and July, we can only hope that it will be as fun and dramatic as the last two weeks.