Less than seven years after its launch, the Asian Champions League is undergoing an overhaul which sees the prize money and the number of participating teams increase as confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam attempts to bring a new level of professionalism to club football in the continent.

By Michael Church in Hong Kong

Winners of the new-look competition will pocket £1.1million – more than double the previous amount – while a preliminary round and a round of 16 have been inserted. In addition, the Final will be played at a neutral venue – Tokyo will host the 2009 edition – rather than on a home-and-away basis, despite the success of the format in ensuring the biggest game in Asian club football was always played in front of a full house.

“We had to implement tough measures to ensure that the clubs, and the leagues they represent, are truly professional in the way they are run and play football,” said Bin Hammam. “This is the only way to build up the tournament’s credibility.

“At the end of the day, Asian football benefits and we’re delighted to see that so many associations and clubs are doing their best to meet our competition criteria.”

So strict are the new rules, which were developed and implemented by a committee headed by former J.League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, that only 10 of Asia’s 46 national associations will definitely be represented.

Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and Iran all have four clubs in the group stage, the United Arab Emirates will contribute three guaranteed participants, Australia, Uzbekistan and Qatar have two, and Indonesia one.

The UAE and Indonesia have also been allowed to enter one club in the play-offs, while India, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were presented with the opportunity of having one club join the two finalists from the AFC Cup in the elimination round.

This year, however, neither Muharraq of Bahrain, who won the AFC Cup, or runners-up Safa from Lebanon have entered the competition, while Vietnam declined its invitation to participate.

“The time has come for Asian club football to shed its amateurism and embrace professionalism in all aspects sincerely,” said Bin Hammam.

“Only a culture of all-pervading professionalism will raise the level of Asian football.”

To encourage that burgeoning professionalism, Bin Hammam also announced that clubs in the Champions League will be able to twin themselves with teams from the English Premier League. “There will be a platform for our administrators, officials and coaches to join the Premier League to gain experience from them,” said Bin Hammam, who was joined by Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore in making the announcement in Tokyo.

“We want to show some solidarity with the AFC with the relaunching of the Champions League,” said Scudamore.

“It’s a big event for the AFC and we understand how big it is, moving to a 32-team format, and we understand how important it is to relaunch and continually develop.

“We don’t see it as a competitor, we believe in the development of professional football.

“We believe in excellence – and that is what has kept the Premier League where it is – and if we see football developing around the world, that’s good news for football generally and that’s good news for the Premier League.”

The new format of the competition included no place in the 2009 edition for the reigning champions, meaning Japan’s Gamba Osaka were in danger of not having the opportunity to defend their crown.

After a disappointing domestic League campaign, Gamba had to rely on success in the Emperor’s Cup to ensure qualification and, thanks to an extra-time goal from Ryuji Bando, Akira Nishino’s side successfully squeezed past Kashiwa Reysol to spare the AFC’s blushes.

The draw
Gamba kick off their title defence with a home fixture against Chinese champions Shandong Luneng after being drawn in Group F alongside FC Seoul from South Korea and Indonesia’s Sriwijaya.

J.League champions Kashima Antlers are in Group G with Shanghai Shenhua, South Korean champions Suwon Bluewings and the winners of the east Asian play-off featuring Thailand’s Provincial Electricity Authority, Singapore Armed Forces and PSMS Medan from Indonesia.

Group H features Kawasaki Frontale, Australia’s Central Coast Mariners, Tianjin Teda of China and two-time champions Pohang Steelers from South Korea, while Nagoya Grampus Eight have been placed in Group E with Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea, China’s Beijing Guoan and Newcastle Jets of Australia.

The west of the continent has thrown up some intriguing groups, with two-time winners Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia due to meet Al Jazira of the United Arab Emirates, Iran’s Esteghlal and Umm Salal of Qatar in Group C.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to qualify from this group,” said Al Ittihad’s Argentinian coach, Gabriel Calderon. “Every group is difficult. In football nothing is easy. It is possible to qualify, but it will be difficult.

“Every time we play to win and to be champion, but every other club thinks the same.”

Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal have been drawn in Group A alongside Pakhtakor from Uzbekistan, Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Saba Battery.

Last year’s semi-finalists Bunyodkor head up Group D, which also includes Al Shabab from the UAE, Iranian club Sepahan and Al Ettifaq from Saudi Arabia.

Group B features Iran’s Pirouzi, Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s Al Gharafa, plus the winners of the play-off between India’s Dempo and Sharjah from the UAE.

After the preliminary play-off games in mid-February, the group phase of the competition starts on March 10, with the top two teams from each group progressing to the second round.