The 2002 AFC Champions League final – the inaugural final of the competition’s current format – saw Thai side BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero) narrowly losing out the title to Emirati giants Al-Ain 2-1 on aggregate. Since then, no ASEAN club has matched the Silver Shield Dragons’ achievements in the continental stage.
After BEC Tero’s remarkable run to the ACL final twenty years ago, ASEAN sides in the ACL were more often than not being used as a means for larger sides to get themselves six easy points. The likes of Persipura Jayapura, Duoc Nam Ha Nam Dinh, Persik Kediri, SHB Da Nang, Topenland Binh Dinh, PSM Makassar, the now-defunct Krung Thai Bank FC, and Arema FC have suffered heavy losses in the competition, mostly dealt on them by more-established East Asian sides with better squad quality and management.
Even after the ACL group stage was expanded to 40 teams in 2021 we still see ASEAN sides suffer heavy defeats at the hands of their East Asian contemporaries, such as United City FC’s 8-0 defeat at the hands of Kawasaki Frontale and Tampines Rovers losing 9-0 to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
However, some ASEAN sides have shown themselves to be more than capable of going toe-to-toe with their more illustrious opposition. Persik’s class of 2007 took the ACL by storm after beating both Shanghai Shenhua and Sydney FC at the Manahan Stadium in Solo, as well as forcing that year’s eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds to a thrilling 3-3 draw. The likes of Buriram United and Muangthong United have navigated their way out of the group stages, with the former even advancing all the way to the quarterfinal back in 2013 – the closest any ASEAN team to have matched BEC Tero’s 2002 run in recent times.
BG Pathum United also showed some promise by advancing out of the group stages in 2021, however, an asterisk must be included in their run – BGPU were through as one of the three best group stage runners-up and they came out from a relatively easy group containing Ulsan Hyundai, Viettel FC, and Kaya FC-Iloilo – and they lost twice to Ulsan. Though to their credit, those defeats came after closely-contested matches, and the Glass Rabbits bowed out of the competition with their heads held high – losing on penalties to Jeonbuk.
So what makes 2022 different than previous ACL seasons for ASEAN sides?
For starters, there are two teams that managed to book themselves a spot in the knockouts – BGPU and Johor Darul Ta’zim. The two are teams built on ambition, with the dream of someday eclipsing their contemporaries from China, Japan, and South Korea, or even beyond. Their respective countries’ best players were drafted into their squads, complimented by tried and tested foreign legions. Behind the scenes both BGPU and JDT were leading the way in terms of club management, implementing modern measures, not unlike their East Asian peers as well as those in Europe.
Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Vision without execution is just a hallucination,” a sentiment echoed by JDT’s ambitious head honcho, Tunku Ismail Idris. And it’s this ambition, the hard work going on to fulfill it, as well as the “trust the process” mentality that got BGPU and JDT to where they are right now. These two didn’t achieve their successes overnight – JDT failed to qualify out of the ACL group stages in their past three attempts despite dominating the Malaysian football scene, while BGPU had to work their way from the Thai second-tier, having been relegated there in 2018 before achieving their recent successes. But in the end, both time (and money) were spent well to ensure that both BGPU and JDT would match those who had already established themselves in the ACL.
Some might argue that the decision made by the Chinese teams to once again field their youngsters in the ACL this year allowed JDT to reap essentially six free points off Guangzhou FC. Others might say that Jeonnam Dragons’ status as a second-tier team allowed BGPU to waltz past them in the group stage. While many will point out that the two had the home-ground advantage throughout the group stages.
But make no mistake, both BGPU and JDT earned their tickets to the knockouts. Sure, JDT lost 5-0 to Kawasaki Frontale, but they managed to hold Toru Oniki’s juggernauts to a goalless draw only days prior. And the Southern Tigers also beat Ulsan twice – remember, the South Koreans were champions of Asia as recently as 2020!
Despite being a second-tier side, Jeonnam were no pushovers – they held group frontrunners BGPU and Melbourne City to draws, and virtually nothing could separate BGPU and their City Football Group-backed rivals in their group stage meetings. Like BGPU and JDT, Melbourne City are a side built on ambition, and the funding that they’ve received from the CFG allowed them to become top dogs in Australian football. It was either them or BGPU getting out of that group – and by virtue of scoring two more goals, it was the Glass Rabbits who went through.
And it’s not only BGPU and JDT alone who have made ASEAN proud in this year’s ACL.
Despite failing to qualify for the knockouts, both Lion City Sailors and Hoang Anh Gia Lai have proven themselves as no pushovers in continental action. Singaporean champions LCS managed to beat Daegu FC 3-0, however, a draw with a youthful Shandong Taishan, coupled with heavy defeats at the hands of Urawa and a narrow 2-1 loss at the hands of Daegu cost the Sailors a spot in the knockouts.
As for HAGL, despite failing to win a game so far in this year’s ACL, the Mountain Men managed to make both Jeonbuk and Yokohama F. Marinos sweat for their wins, showing that the Vietnamese side were capable enough to go toe-to-toe with the two seasoned ACL campaigners.
Even Leo Chiangrai United, who were beaten 6-0 by Vissel Kobe, showed some brilliance with a 0-0 draw against the same opponents. But in the end, two defeats to Kitchee SC – who have made a habit of being a thorn in Thai clubs’ sides in the ACL – eliminated the Beetles from further continental action.
These excellent showings from ASEAN clubs in this year’s ACL are proof that the region’s clubs are on an upwards trajectory on the continental stage and soon enough, they could see themselves as equal competition with the continent’s elite.