Southeast Asian Champions Ready to Rumble
Talk to any passionate Asian football fan about the Champions League and chances are you’ll soon be suckered into a conversation discussing the relative merits of Lionel Messi or Jose Mourinho’s tactical nous.
But people will be less conversant about the Asian Football Confederation’s very own Champions League (ACL), which is right on their very doorstep.
With the competition being dominated by teams from northeast Asia recently — teams from South Korea have won the ACL three times and Japanese teams twice — and with the money flowing through the veins of football there, it is difficult to imagine a time when the much-poorer Thai football league was a dominant force across the continent.
Back in the mid-1990s, before the financial crisis that ripped through Southeast Asia with such a devastating effect, Thai Farmers’ Bank was twice crowned champion in the ACL’s predecessor tournament, the Asian Club Championship.
Unfortunately, TFB was never able to build on its early success because the team’s owner, a bank, decided to concentrate on its core business after the crisis, so dropped the football club.
In 2002/03, the Asian Club Championship was rebranded as the ACL and in its inaugural season, another Thai team reached the final. This time, BEC Tero, another corporate-backed team, failed to overcome Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain, going down 2-1 on aggregate.
The 2011 ACL kicks off this weekend with another Thai team, Muang Thong United, attempting to make its mark on Asian football’s premier club competition. The team features in a playoff against Indonesia’s Sriwijaya FC at Gelora Sriwijaya Stadium in Palembang on Saturday night. The winner of this tie will have one further playoff to decide whether or not they will go into the ACL or the second tier AFC Cup.
Muang Thong slipped up at the playoff stage last season when it was knocked out by Singapore’s SAFFC on penalties. Muang Thong went on to reach the semifinals of the AFC Cup, but the new power in Thai football will look on that as a failure after years of big investment.
Having won four titles in four years (Division 2, Division 1 and the Thai Premier League twice), Muang Thong has transformed itself from just another small provincial team into a force in Thai football, playing in front of crowds of 15,000-plus every week.
Subtle branding, Manchester United colors for home games and Real Madrid colors for away, has encouraged supporters to believe that success is their birthright even though most of its supporters never started following the team until halfway through their first TPL success.
And as a big club, they are filled with some of the biggest names in Thai football. Like national team skipper Datsakorn Thonglao and striker Teerasil Dangda.
At the back, they can count on perhaps the best young keeper in Southeast Asia, Kawin Thamasatchan. The 21-year-old is an excellent shot stopper and oozes confidence between the sticks.
The other name Sriwijaya will need to watch out for is Anon Sangsanoi, who has been the TPL’s top scorer for three out of the last four seasons.
Of course, Sriwijaya is not without its own dangerous players. A third of the way into the Indonesian Super League, it has yet to find any consistency, although a 5-0 thumping of second-placed Semen Padang last time out suggests coach Ivan Kolev is slowly getting the team to gel.
Up front, the team relies strongly on the evergreen Keith Kayamba Gumbs.
The 39-year-old St. Kitts and Nevis international is in his fourth season with the club and has been at the heart of its recent success. Supporting him up front is Budi Sudarsono, arguably one of the most technically gifted players in Indonesia.
Sriwijaya supplied many players to the Indonesian side that reached the AFF Cup Final in 2010, including the young winger Oktovianus Maniani.
For all the talk of the 20-year-old Papuan making the grade in Europe, he first needs to do the business locally, and against the Thai champion he has the perfect chance to show his worth.
There is also the potent threat from two other internationals. Arif Suyono was used mostly as a substitute during the AFF Cup, but he always had an impact.
And then there is Muhammad Ridwan, as much a wingback as a fullback, who also caught the eye during the AFF Cup.
Two successful teams fighting it out for the right to represent their country in the biggest club competition in Asia. It promises to be a mouthwatering clash.