It is another year’s knockout stage of the ACL Champions League that is about to begin for the East region. In the group stages that determine the match-ups, many things ring a similar bell: after the surprise FA Cup win last year Shenhua entered tournament as the outsiders but only to be drawn with the same team that they have met last time they were in the main event in 2011. Greentown, now in League One, were also in the running with TEDA, who were also nearly relegated last season, were the only Chinese team that made it out of their group. Evergrande, too, gave us a slow start which hasn’t been uncommon in recent years but finished on top of other fellow travellers in Group G. SIPG gave a consistently dominant performance on the continent as they do at home. Quanjian, meanwhile, are having a similar experience as Suning did last year.
But there have been changes, too. Kitchee made the historical breakthrough of earning the first three points for a Hong Kong team at the expense of a Kashiwa Reysol. Something they managed having to fight with ten men from the fifteenth minute. Japanese teams, on the down side, had only one team – Kashima Antlers – in the Last 16. They will face very tough opposition in Shanghai SIPG in the first elimination round.
Such is the reduced state of J-League this season on the continental stage as they bequeathed the audience the poorest showing in history. Last year they gave us the ultimate winners, Urawa Diamonds, and boasted three quarter-finalists in the East Region. Their place this year is taken by the Korean sides instead. But to make things much worse, Day 6 of the group stage had the headlines grabbed by Japanese teams for all the wrong reasons. Cerezo Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale gave up before even arriving at the stadium, by fielding what essentially is their reserve team. Outrage followed.
Such a sentiment is understandable, if the language used in some instances was slightly excessive. Nobody goes to a stadium or waits in front of the TV or computer to watch a football team not to give their best. Rotation should, it seems, be confined to the ‘first team’ and made only when necessary. Indeed, it is found in the tournament’s regulations that each of the team is required to ‘field their strongest team throughout the Competition’ (Regulation 3:3:4). Cerezo, Kawasaki, and indeed Kashiwa when they played Kitchee at Mong Kok Stadium, sent all their usual subs into the final game when they still had a chance to qualify for the Last 16, behaviour which was viewed as unsporting. Even those whose exact place in the group was known, like SIPG, sent in only partially, if largely, rotated squads.
However, this kind of criticism is somewhat undue. For starters, it goes ultimately to the clubs to make the decision for themselves and take the responsibilities. If their fans get grumpy it is for them to explain. If any sanction from the ACL comes along, it is their prerogative to appeal or accept. They had good reasons to do so. Use Cerezo Osaka as an example, playing Evergrande at Tianhe is very hard challenge indeed for any team indeed. If past records are anything to go by, the odds are another defeat. What follows is an all-important Osaka derby with Gamba. To lose two important games in a row is bad. But to lose a derby which the fans are more fixated on is even worse.
That is not suggesting that Cerezo’s youths did not, for a while, give Goulart and co a good run for their money. Not until the 57th minute did Alan’s goal come to tell two sides apart. This was a result that might well be obtained by Cerezo’s first-teamers, whose thoughts might be elsewhere nevertheless. To say Cerezo did not contest the match was probably not true.
Then there is the rule-breaking. The AFC phrased the rule in rather general terms and it is difficult for any team not to ‘break’ it. Any minor modification to the starting line-up and application of a strategy of rotation would be at risk of breaking the tournament regulation on a closer of the reading of the books. Teams like Shanghai SIPG, even though they did not run the ire of the commentators in this regard, are equally guilty of fielding a weaker-than-usual team. The circumstances they find themselves in the group, was not mentioned by the tournament organisers.
There is also the money factor. Winning the J-League gives the team the equivalent of 14 million US dollars (in instalments). In comparison the recently-increased 4 million from the AFC looks paltry. Football clubs, in the end, are just a different type of company. It also has its ends to meet and books to balance. Sometimes it requires making difficult decisions. For Cerezo and others, they decided that running in three tournaments was simply too much and the Champions League was the most difficult with the fewest benefits. It was understandable for them to concentrate in the league – as long as they did not lose face immediately.
AFC might wish to solve the problem by instilling increased prize money. They could also learn from UEFA and take the federations’ performance in previous years into account when determining how much berths each league gets in the following year’s competition. But it would be unwise, indeed infeasible, to sanction the Japanese teams on these feeble grounds. What we saw last Tuesday and Wednesday was just another reminder that even football may be called the beautiful game, it is just another ruthless and calculating business.