Waiting for the ACL to take off

A Japanese official once told me their club hoped to avoid finishing in the ACL places because participating in the competition cost too much money!

I once wore a Sydney FC scarf to the sold-out testimonial of legendary Shimizu S-Pulse playmaker Masaaki Sawanobori.

Strangely enough, just as many S-Pulse fans wanted to talk to me about Adelaide United as they did Sydney FC, both of whom had recently qualified for the AFC Champions League. Most J. League fans, it seems, know Australian clubs through their participation in the ACL.

Why then are so many ACL games played in front of empty terraces? This is true not just in Australia but also in Japan and South Korea as well.

There are cultural reasons for this – it’s tough to get time off work mid-week and K-League attendances tend to be poor anyway – but it’s also true the ACL does not yet hold the allure the Asian Football Confederation is hoping for.

In fact, a Japanese official once told me their club hoped to avoid finishing in the ACL places because participating in the competition cost too much money!

Until such time as clubs earn a clear profit from the group stage onwards, the ACL will remain a tough sell for all concerned.

And it’s especially tough trying to get Australian fans excited about teams they know little about, as my fellow columnist Ross Aloisi recently pointed out.

Ross cited ticket prices and the timing of fixtures as a couple of reasons for the low ACL interest in Australia, but there’s one other thing I’d add to his list.

With a few notable exceptions, Australia’s football media is fundamentally Eurocentric.

There are some obvious reasons for this, not least the wave of European migrants who arrived during the post-war years and heralded a football boom.

Many children of these migrants have gone on to enjoy long and successful careers in all aspects of the football industry – including the media.

Understandably their allegiance to European football remains strong and shifting our collective consciousness towards the Asian game will take some time yet.

That said, some Australian journalists possess an outstanding knowledge of Asian football.

Scott McIntyre is a walking encyclopaedia on the subject, yet I think it would come as a surprise to many just how well respected (and well connected) he is on the continent.

Likewise, Simon Hill and Andy Harper are two enthusiastic advocates of Asian football and their knowledge and passion for the region is evident in Fox Sports’ impressive ACL broadcasts.

But how do we best utilise their knowledge when Australian fans seem so disconnected and at times disinterested in Asian football?

Those fans who complain about a media bias against football are sometimes the same ones who wouldn’t dream of turning up at an ACL match.

What incentives are there for sports editors to run stories on the ACL when fans can’t be bothered to support the tournament in the first place?

It would be remiss not to mention Adelaide United’s fantastic run to the 2008 final, when supporters turned out in droves and the South Australian media threw their full weight behind the team.

I just wonder if Gamba Osaka’s subsequent demolition of the Reds didn’t dampen much of our enthusiasm for the tournament.

For the first time Australian fans fully understood the technical depth of one of East Asia’s top teams – and A-League sides have copped similar floggings from the likes of Kawasaki, Pohang and Seongnam since.

The way forward is not just to match these teams on the pitch but also to surpass them off it.

With Australia set to host the Asian Cup in 2015, the time is right for fans to take a renewed interest in the Asian game.

Because it’s only when fans start turning up at AFC-sanctioned matches en masse and start demanding informed coverage from journalists that we’ll broaden our collective knowledge of the Asian game.