Adelaide United are the unlikely flag-bearers of a football revolution. The South Australian club have only been around for five years, having been formed in response to the withdrawal of traditional powerhouses Adelaide City from Australia's dying National Soccer League. Just five years later United stand on the brink of continental glory, and the manner of their success could force a re-think from some of Asia's best club sides as to how they approach the AFC Champions League.
Continental football is not a new concept in Asia, with the first incarnation of an international tournament featuring Asian club sides taking place in 1967. Since then continental football has been played in Asia under various guises and with limited success. The latest overhaul took place in 2003, but it was not until Japanese outfit Urawa Reds lifted the rebranded AFC Champions League title in 2007 that Asian officials began to see the tournament as a potential money-making exercise.
Now Adelaide United stand just one game away from the AFC Champions League final, and their success bodes well for the competition. That's because in their second successive Champions League campaign, Adelaide United have treated the tournament with the utmost respect. Indeed after the Socceroos' inglorious exit from the Asian Cup in 2007, Adelaide's recent Champions League success has re-energised some of the more casual Australian fans who were struggling to recognise the benefits of Australia's entry into the alien environs of Asian football.
Adelaide's success could have a knock-on effect throughout the region. Their defeat of reigning J. League champions Kashima Antlers in the quarter-finals signalled to the Japanese that Australian teams were deadly serious in their quest for continental glory. Cashed up Uzbek side Bunyodkor were expected to provide a stern test in the semi-finals, with the Tashkent-based outfit home to Brazilian great Rivaldo, as well as a host of Uzbekistan internationals. But after being out-played in the first half in Adelaide, Aurelio Vidmar's side went on to record a 3-0 win to take a commanding lead to Tashkent and leave them standing on the brink of the Champions League final.
A birth in the final will represent a double success for Adelaide. With Japanese sides Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds meeting in the other semi-final, it means that if Adelaide United manage to see off Bunyodkor in the second leg, the South Australians are guaranteed to progress to the money-spinning FIFA Club World Cup taking place in Japan in December. That's because only one Japanese team will take part in the Club World Cup - either as domestic or continental champions. It means that regardless of whether Adelaide United lift the AFC Champions League trophy or not, they will travel to Tokyo in December with a chance of lining up a clash with reigning European champions Manchester United.
All of this represents the kind of exposure that fellow A-League clubs can only dream of. It also means that clubs from traditionally strong Asian countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia will no doubt be casting envious glances in the direction of Adelaide. With money pouring into the oil-rich Gulf States and more recently, Uzbekistan, Adelaide's success has been built on the stereotypically Australian virtue of hard work and team spirit. It may sound clichéd, but with a salary cap of just $A1.9 million plus one cap-exempt marquee player, Adelaide's success has necessarily been built on a platform of old-fashioned gumption and grit.
The formula has seen them come this far, but the Champions League is not without its critics. Former Adelaide coach John Kosmina is now in charge of Sydney FC, and he questioned United's commitment to their domestic duties when Adelaide fielded an under-strength starting eleven in their recent 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sydney. Adelaide's vanquished ACL opponents Kashima Antlers also bemoaned the toll of continental football on their attempts to defend their J. League crown, and with the Champions League holding little sway with some national associations when it comes to scheduling domestic fixture lists, the AFC will need to strengthen ties with national associations if the Champions League is to become a household name throughout Asia.
With that in mind the AFC will once again overhaul the competition from next season, with 32 teams now set to take part from Asia's top-ranked eleven nations. Critics have labelled the new-look competition unwieldy - drawing parallels to the much-maligned second group stage implemented by the UEFA Champions League a few seasons ago that was eventually scrapped due to a lukewarm response from the public. Indeed some have claimed that the new-look AFC Champions League tries too hard to be a direct copy of its more prestigious European counterpart, with the most obvious cause for complaint the sheer distance that Asian teams must travel to compete internationally. Even if the AFC plays fixtures on a regional basis until the quarter-final stage, the sheer toll of criss-crossing several different time-zones and weathering a multitude of varying climes is bound to impact on a team's domestic performances.
Adelaide United won't be worried about that now. They stand on the brink of a momentous achievement, and should they reach the final, then three consecutive sell-outs at their Hindmarsh Stadium home will have done the bank balance no harm either. The success of the South Australians has cast the AFC Champions League into the spotlight in a country where European football has long been venerated - often to the detriment of Australian club sides. In turn, Adelaide's performances against some highly-rated Asian opponents means that Asian club sides will no doubt be aiming to lift their game the next time they come up against Australian opposition in a new-look AFC Champions League.
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