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May 12, 2011

Aussie soccer invasion of Asia 'failing'

For Australian soccer, entering the Asian Champions League in 2007 was seen as opening the door to football and financial nirvana.

Showcasing the Australian game in the world's fastest growing soccer market.

Football-fuelled economic and trade spin-offs for Australia.

Massive television audiences to draw sponsors.

Huge prizemoney - the ACL winners pocket upwards of $US2 million from the tournament.

But Asia's promised land has delivered little for A-League clubs - either in hard currency or results.

The Asian invasion has seemingly become mission impossible.

Aside from Adelaide United's superb 2008 run to make the final, just two other Australian sides - Newcastle Jets in 2009 and Adelaide again in 2010 - have made the round of 16.

Both were promptly dispatched before the competition got down to business.

Plenty of others litter the roadside having not survived the group stage.

Melbourne Victory have failed three times, Sydney FC twice. Both bowed out of the competition again this week at the group stage.

The home crowds for all Australian teams bar Adelaide have been as poor as the performances.

Despite the quality of the opposition from the excellent Japanese and Korean leagues, few Australian fans care.

Pre-season matches against second-string big-name European opposition draw far bigger crowds than Gamba Osaka or Jeonbuk Motors.

The list of problems A-League clubs face in the ACL is long, and most are without easy solutions.

The A-League operates on a strict salary cap. For their rivals, anything goes.

Unlike Australia, wages competitive with much of Europe mean Japanese and Korean clubs usually keep the best of their home-grown talent.

And there's enough left over to add a high-quality Brazilian playmaker or two and an eastern European centre-back - all on far bigger money than Australia offers.

Timing is another key issue.

The A-League season finishes after the ACL starts.

Asian football chiefs demand the entrants be named prior to the competition draw in January.

That means Australia's two entries go into the competition 12 months after they've won the grand final or minor premiership, rather than at their competitive peak.

According to Football Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley, that won't be changing any time soon.

"The practical issue is that our season doesn't finish until after the Champions League starts," he said.

"When the A-League finished at the end of January and start of February, there was a chance.

"But the dates for the Champions League have come forward from March to February, and our season will now finish in March or April.

"We just don't have the winners by then."

It's not only goodwill for the ACL that's draining, so too are the pockets of Australian clubs as they compete without success.

While A-League sides are provided with a travel subsidy for away games, the ACL only pays if you win.

In 2011, teams get $US40,000 for winning a group game, $US20,000 a draw, nothing for a loss.

For some Australian clubs, that's hardly worth opening the stadium doors considering the cost of staging a game.

The big money only kicks in at the semi-final stage - $US120,000 for the semis, $US750,000 guaranteed if you make the final, $US1.5 million for winning.

Now-retired Socceroo Kevin Muscat, who played his final game for Melbourne Victory in the ACL this week, admits Australian clubs face far more hurdles to compete on the Asian stage than their rivals.

"The reality is you're not comparing apples with apples in terms of the teams, the finances, the salary cap, the numbers of players," he said.

"It's a one-sided playing field.

"I'm not going to sit here and criticise because I haven't got all the answers.

"How does it get fixed? I don't know."

Perhaps the best hope of fixing Australia's ACL problems is a team capable of winning the competition.

And the best hope Australia has had in the ACL is on its way.

Brisbane Roar's remarkable A-League championship season - and their ability to play a quality of football rarely seen in Australia - marks them as a team to watch in Asia.

Coach Ange Postecoglou has earmarked winning the tournament as a priority.

He looks set to retain most of the squad which dominated the domestic league - though who knows what shape his team will be in by mid-2012.

But if the Roar can't bridge the gap, it's hard to see Australia having any realistic hope of winning the tournament until changes - especially to the ACL's timing - are made.

And that begs the question - what's the point of A-League clubs competing at all?

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