The progression of Sydney FC to the Round of 16 knock-out stage of this year’s Asian Champions League (ACL) is another remarkable achievement by an Australian club side. On Wednesday night at the Allianz Stadium, the Sky Blues played out a pragmatic 0-0 draw against Urawa Reds Diamonds of Japan, a winner of the ACL in 2007 under former Socceroos’ coach Holger Osieck.

Although the game rarely rose to great heights in terms of excitement and creation of clear-cut goal scoring opportunities, most underwhelming was that a crowd of less than 9,000 attended. This followed the 1-0 home victory over Pohang Steelers earlier in the month witnessed by less than 6,000 fans.

Even the legendary Reds supporters (including some associated with ‘Red Hell’) attended in far fewer numbers than the corresponding fixture in 2007 when around 2,000 of their fans travelled to Sydney for a 2-2 result. The overall crowd that night was 21,000. On this occasion around 150 travelling fans were well and truly outsung by The Cove. Perhaps their biggest contribution was the array of large colourful red and black banners and tifos.

In early March, a crowd of over 18,000 at Allianz was on hand to see Sydney FC upset reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande, although almost half appeared to be in support of the visitors, a reflection of the large Chinese (or Cantonese) Australian population.

Despite the euphoria generated through the successful title winning campaign of the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, it seems that the Australian sporting public and football community hasn’t really embraced the ACL as a must-see tournament. Even Melbourne Victory with its huge membership support base has struggled to consistently attract large crowds over the past two years.  

Australian’s obsession with Champions League football remains solidly with the European competition, with live TV coverage featuring huge clubs and stars that are household names. How to compete for attention and interest with the likes of Barcelona and Messi, Real and Ronaldo, Bayern and Robben, PSG and Ibrahimovic, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid and so many more?

Some argue that mid-week football (with almost all games played on either a Tuesday or Wednesday night) just doesn’t click with most fans. So is this resistance further exacerbated by perceived failures of FFA and the participating clubs themselves to inadequately market and promote the Asian club football product?

There are other countries in the east Asian side of the ACL draw that also underwhelm in terms of home crowds, and this includes Japan and Korea. In China, ACL crowds are soaring as the appetite and passion for following quality football steadily increases, and with huge investments into clubs. It’s no accident that, of the other three Chinese clubs, Shandong and Shanghai SIPG have already reached the Round of 16, with Jiangsu likely to join them in two weeks time.

State of play

Sydney FC now has the opportunity to top the group if they beat Guangzhou away on 3 May. It is a task perhaps less daunting now that the Cantonese side cannot reach the knock out stages and could well field a youthful, more experimental line-up as they look towards the future. A reward would then be drawing Shandong Luneng, the second placed team from Group F, with an advantage of playing the first leg away from home. The Round of 16 games will be held over two legs on 18 and 25 May.

Meanwhile, our other representatives, Melbourne Victory, will also make the Round of 16 if they defeat Gamba Osaka in Melbourne on May 3rd. While not necessary if they win, Melbourne Victory will also be hoping Suwon does not win against Shanghai SIPG who lead the group.

Getting people to games

As part of our engagement with Asia, it is up to FFA to ramp up the public awareness raising, promotional activities and high profile events in the lead up to the Round of 16 games. There will even greater opportunities to ‘piggy back’ events onto the game particularly if the Sky Blues meet the Chinese team Shandong. We should not underestimate how such leverage and synergies (for examples, links to trade and building cultural relationships) can work to the advantage of our football’s development.

To help fill the Allianz Stadium in late May, how about FFA, Sydney FC and partners show more innovation on ticket prices and also distribute many thousands of sponsored complimentary tickets to grassroots clubs, associations and volunteers throughout the region?

With far less resources, salary caps and the tyranny of distance, let us hope that Sydney FC and perhaps Melbourne Victory do our football proud by advancing even deeper into the 2016 Asian Champions League.  

Categories: Opinion | Asia

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