AFC Champions League changes: How and why has it been revamped?

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The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed at its annual Congress last week more details about the format changes of its continental club competitions from the 2024-25 season.

In the biggest overhaul to AFC tournaments since the Asian Club Championship was replaced with the AFC Champions League more than two decades ago, four brand new competitions are set to transform the continent’s football landscape.

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The existing AFC Champions League and AFC Cup will be replaced by three men’s competitions, while the first ever AFC Women’s Champions League has also been introduced. Here Al Arabiya English explains the changes and explores why they have happened.

What is the AFC Champions League elite?

The headline change is that the continent’s preeminent club competition, the AFC Champions League, has been rebranded as the AFC Champions League Elite (ACL Elite) - with the number of teams participating reduced from 40 to 24. Gone is the multi-group approach, with the AFC following European counterpart UEFA in creating a more expansive ‘League’ format.

The split between East and West Asian clubs remains, but the group stage will now be made up of one league of 12 teams in each region - rather than the current five groups of four. In this phase, each team will play four home and four away games against eight randomly selected teams from the same region.

This ensures that every team will face most, but not all, other teams in their region. Draws for each of the eight games will be conducted after the preceding match, so teams will only know their next opponent one game at a time. The top eight teams from each region at the end of the league stage will progress to a traditional two-legged round of 16 contest, but the remainder of the tournament sees another major change.

The two-legged format of the quarterfinals, semi-finals and final has been scrapped in favor of a ‘finals’ tournament, which will take place over 10 days in one host country. The quarterfinals, semi-finals and final will all now be one-off matches and clubs from East and West Asia can meet from the last-eight onwards, rather than just the final.

Where will the finals be played?

For the first two seasons of the AFC Champions League Elite, the finals tournament will take place in Saudi Arabia, after the Kingdom beat Iraq to win hosting rights for 2025 and 2026. Should those two editions go well, Saudi Arabia will be renewed as hosts for three more years.

Asia’s other three new tournaments - the AFC Champions League Two, the AFC Challenge League and the AFC Women’s Champions League - will each have a one-off final, but details of hosts have not yet been announced.

How do teams qualify?

As with the soon-to-be-defunct AFC Champions League, qualification for the ACL Elite depends on the rankings of leagues based on the AFC coefficient system. For 2024-25, this means that three places go to Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea; two spots are reserved for Qatar, Iran, and China; UAE, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Thailand, Australia and Malaysia will all have one representative.

In Saudi Arabia, places will go to the top two in the Saudi Pro League, plus the winner of the King's Cup. League and Cup winners will also enter from Qatar, Japan, China and South Korea. Many of the 2024-25 participants are already known, with the Saudi Pro League's top three teams - Al-Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ahli - all qualifying, while Al Sadd of Qatar, Esteghal and Persepolis of Iran and Uzebekistan's Pakhtakor complete the list of those to make it in so far in West Asia.

In East Asia, the list is more complete with Japan's Vissel Kobe, Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F Marinos joining Ulsan HD, Phang Steelers and Gwangju FC of South Korea, Thailand's Buriram United, Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim, Australia's Central Coast Mariners and Shanghai Port and Shanghai Shenhua of China.

The list will be finalized when all domestic seasons have been completed, as the play-off round includes a match between the yet-to-be crowned Thai Cup winners and Chinese Super League runner-up Shandong Taishan for the final East Asian place. Meanwhile, Qatar Stars League runner-up Al-Rayyan, UAE President's Cup winner Al-Wasl and the presently unknown Iranian Cup winner will be among those vying for two West Asian places via the play-off.

Are there other new competitions?

Yes. The first ever AFC Women’s Champions League (ACWCL) is set to debut in 2024-25. Twelve teams will compete in the inaugural tournament, with Al Nassr (Saudi Arabia), Melbourne City (Australia), Etihad (Jordan), Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan) and Odisha (India) the clubs to have confirmed their participation so far.

Elsewhere, the AFC Champions League Two (ACL Two) will take over from the AFC Cup to give Asia a new secondary club competition for the first time since 2004. While the AFC Cup was focused on giving clubs from lower-ranked national associations the opportunity to compete continentally, the ACL Two is designed to be a bridge competition between the ACL Elite and its new tertiary tournament, the AFC Challenge League.

Significantly, there will be representatives from Asia’s top national associations, meaning that less experienced continental clubs will be able to test themselves against teams from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Iran. The losers from the ACL Elite play-offs automatically drop into the ACL Two, while there are guaranteed spots for clubs from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, UAE, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Jordan, Tajikistan, India and Bahrain in West Asia.

In the East there will be representatives from Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Philippines and Singapore. Clubs from North Korea, Indonesia, Kuwait and Turkmenistan will have opportunities to compete through the play-offs.

The ACL Two’s knockout format is more similar to the old AFC Cup and AFC Champions League, with two-legged ties played in the last-16, quarter-finals and semi-final - before a one-off final.

A rung below the ACL Two is the third new men’s competition, the AFC Challenge League (ACGL). Aimed wholly at teams from lower-ranked nations, the tournament will see clubs from the likes of Pakistan, Oman, Yemen, Palestine, Myanmar and Mongolia do battle for a continental crown.

The tournament will have a centralized format that sees 20 teams divided into five groups of four. Clubs will play single-leg ties across seven days at one venue in October and November and the top eight will qualify for the knockout stage. The quarter-finals will take place at a single location in March, the semi-finals in April and the final is slated for May 4.

Why have the changes been made?

The shake-up has been promised for some time and was agreed in principle in 2022, before further details were fleshed out last year. The new formats have been designed to create what the AFC hopes will be a better, more marketable football spectacle. More matches at the highest level of the ACL Elite means more opportunities to cash-in on broadcasting revenue, while the new-look ‘finals’ creates a clear focal point for the premier tournament.

The AFC insists the increase in prize money for the ACL Elite to $12 million from $4 million demonstrates its commitment to rewarding the continent’s best clubs, while it also promised that this increased investment will drip down to the lower-ranked football nations in Asia too.

“Our commitment to further strengthen the Asian club competition football landscape was demonstrated with the establishment of the new competitions and today’s reveal of their visual identities signifies another huge step towards the dawn of a new era,” AFC President, Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, said at last week’s AFC Congress.

“The tapestry of Asian football is rich and unique, backed by the millions of passionate fans, and brimming with endless possibilities and unlimited potential – which have been captured in the new brands that will breathe fresh life into the competitions. These landmark revamps reinforce the AFC's ambitions.”

Are there criticisms?

Yes, plenty. A report from global players' union FIFPro earlier this year said changes urgently needed to happen in Asian football as an extensive survey from the organization indicated that currently “the merits do not outweigh the drawbacks for most players and clubs, making it an unsustainable system,” according to FIFPRO Asia/Oceania chairperson Takuya Yamazaki. The report found that participation in Asian club competition comes at a sometimes crippling cost to the teams involved. Air travel around Asia is expensive and for smaller clubs, this is a significant burden. The new format of the ACL Elite increases the number of initial group games, meaning an extra away fixture for each club to bankroll.

The AFC will point to increased prize money, but it remains to be seen whether the continent’s smaller clubs will be sufficiently boosted in reality. That each fixture in the ACL Elite is only known a week or so in advance also presents numerous logistical challenges for clubs in terms of organization. For home games, this might lead to inadequate security as more fans are likely to show up if a team is hosting Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr for example, while away games present the additional aforementioned financial costs.

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