Monday, October 5, 2009

Asian History - New Era

Like the title speak, it is clear the author hoped to view developments from the year 2002 onwards as a completely new era for Singapore football.

While developments after 1997 New Start could be viewed overall as positive considering Singapore beginning, there were still the old pre-S-league thinking lingering around as seem by actions taken by Jaguars, Stallions and up to a point by the Warriors towards the end of the New Start era.

In the year 2002, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) witnesses first hand the importance and influence of football marketing after the financial success of the World Cup in Japan and Korea.

AFC embarked on a new direction for Asia as it knew the urgent need to re-market Asia football for a global audience thus its discarded the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners’ Cup putting all its effort into launching the AFC Champions League.

The name of the competition may have changed but little else did and it was still near to impossible for the S-league teams to reach the group stage when it was the North-East Asia teams that stood in the way.

Also, the AFC Champions League group stage was too short, lasting no more than a month before moving onto the semi-final, so the effect of the new competition was limited and felt little elsewhere, let alone Singapore.

Therefore, it was no surprise when in 2004 AFC took further action after a year of planning and made the decision to split the 45 Asian members into three groups to speed up development of Asian football.

It came about from the election of Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam, a year earlier, as President of AFC and immediately the new president went to work implementing a new plan known as Vision Asia.

Part of this plan divided Asian club football into three parts with the AFC Champion League restricted to the top group of 14 leagues considered 'mature’ with the next group of 14 leagues considered 'developing' with their own competition known as the AFC Cup. The last group of 17 League was considered ‘emerging’ with a competition known as 'AFC Presidents Cup' to start in May 2005.

Singapore’s S-league was grouped into the second group of 14 Leagues considered ‘developing’ and participated in the newly-created AFC Cup. Other Leagues in the group are from Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Syria, Turkmenistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar and North Korea.

The plan called for five years of non-changes and at first, it looked harsh as leagues that proven capable could not be promoted while leagues that proved inept are not demoted during this period.

But it was needed as too many members in the Confederation wanted changes to Vision Asia roadmap to suit their own interests and by setting a period of non-change; it meant the process could not be reverse easily.

In between all this, AFF also did not stand still and make their own contribution to the development of ASEAN and local football with the creation of ASEAN Club Championship in 2003.

The league champions of ASEAN finally had the chance to play among themselves and improved further for it is no secret that up to half of ASEAN eleven league lacked competitive football outside of their own domestic league. It is hampering the development of football in the ASEAN region and with ASEAN Club Championship, it is hoped the problem would diminish with time.

It would however take a while for that to happen as the ASEAN Club Championship had yet to build up it reputation and prestige and not helping is that the competition is not held annually but rather once every two years .

Nevertheless, the ASEAN Club Championship had left it mark on the local football scene for in its second edition in 2005, S-league represented by 2004 League champions Tampines Rovers triumphed above all the rest to be crown as ASEAN Champions.

Clearly it represented an important step forward as its showcase local football club can now matched the best of ASEAN and in time to come it is hoped this is just the first step with S-league clubs matching the best Asia can offered.

Unfortunately, AFF efforts to aid club football ended at that point as the ASEAN Club Championship was not held since and no huge effort was taken to revive it.

Luckily for S-league, AFC did not take the same route as AFF and continue it efforts to bring Asia forward as AFC Champions League and AFC Cup took it next step after the initial five-year plan ended in 2008.

A major reform was implemented and the number teams playing in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup were increased to 64 teams, along with increased prize money with total prize money now over US$20 million, and yet AFC reduced direct entry to the AFC Champions League from 14 leagues to 10 leagues – Japan, S.Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Indonesia – to maintain higher standard of requirements.

Leagues were thrown out of AFC Champions League and AFC Cup if the league were not considered in line with development, even if their football were up-to-grade, with Iraq, Kuwait and Syria downgraded to AFC Cup while Turkmenistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh were downgraded to the third–tier AFC Presidents Cup.

S-league got a qualifying spot for the AFC Champions League and an automatic spot for the AFC Cup from 2009 onward and another step towards another era, hopefully glorious era, loomed.

In all, the efforts and time spend by S-league in New Era were not a waste as S-league were rewarded as it was only one of two leagues, with India’s I-league the other, upgraded to AFC Champions League status with a qualifying spot.

At the same time, history were re-written time and time again in New Era with both Home United and Geylang United making an Asian semi-final appearance for the first time in Singapore football history in 2004 and Tampines Rovers winning the ASEAN crown in 2005.

Beside all that though, the most important aspect in New Era were that local players were developing further ahead than any of the other generation as direct entry to the group stage in Asia meant exposure and experience at the international level year in and year out for no less than six games and that was missing in the Beginning and New Start Era where lacked of games were one of the problem.

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