Bad boys raise Asian profile
'Al-Badd' is the succinct nickname that has been given to 2011 Asian Champions League finalists Al Sadd by the Korean media. That reputation is going to give the game against South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors on Saturday an extra edge. If you were writing about the European final, you would probably add 'as if one were needed for a game of such magnitude' to that sentence, but in Asia, it probably is.
The emergence of a villain is welcome for a tournament that is trying to raise its profile in the continent and the wider world and Al Sadd are definitely cast in the role of bad boy. Usually, the neutrals would be behind the underdog ahead of the match at Jeonju World Cup Stadium (and the Doha outfit are definitely that), but it is likely that those not from Qatar will be leaning towards the green of Jeonbuk.
Al Sadd have not exactly endeared themselves to the impartial. Only the disqualification of Vietnamese teams allowed Jorge Fossati's men into the competition at all. They then proceeded to lose both legs of their quarter-final against Sepahan, but were allowed through to the last four as it turned out that the Iranians fielded an ineligible player in the first leg.
Then came the semi-final with Jeonbuk's K-League colleagues Suwon Bluewings. The first game in Korea - a 2-0 win to Al Sadd - was hugely controversial. The hosts had put the ball out of play to enable players to receive treatment but instead of getting the ball back, watched in shock as Kader Keita and Mamadou Niang combined to score. A huge fight ensued between players and staff which drew worldwide criticism.
The second leg in Doha saw Suwon pull an early goal back but that was as good as it got and the Koreans left the Middle East shaking their heads at the timewasting tactics of the hosts. An image of an Al Sadd player appearing to smile at his team-mates after falling to the ground complaining of cramp (forcing Suwon to stop another attack), only added to the feeling of injustice.
There has been further controversy this week as the AFC announced their punishments for the players involved in the brawl from the first leg. Both Stevica Ristic of Suwon and Keita were sent off for fighting and automatically missed the second legs. Ristic has subsequently been handed a six-game ban, as has Al Sadd's goalkeeping coach, yet Keita, a vital player for the Qataris, has not been punished and is available for selection. It is a decision that has been greeted with incredulity in Seoul: "Does the AFC want Al Sadd to win?", read one headline. And many have wondered whether the confederation is cool on the idea of another Korean victory in the competition - as a Jeonbuk win would be a third in succession for the country - and would prefer a first west Asian triumph since 2005.
Al Sadd and Suwon's mass brawl
Conspiracy theories, good teams and bad boys - it all adds to the drama and entertainment. Al Sadd's antics have provided a real service to the competition that sometimes struggles to get the worldwide profile the AFC craves. Too often, when East and West Asia meets on the pitch, even for a final, there is little interest in the opposition. Seongnam Ilhwa of South Korea defeated Iran's Zob Ahan in the final in Tokyo last year, but few fans of the Yellows would be able to tell you anything about the runners-up from Isfahan and vice-versa. This is not strange. There is zero coverage of West Asian football in China, Japan and Korea and, again, vice-versa. It is the ultimate puzzle for the AFC: how to get football fans in Asia to become fans of Asian football.
So anything that builds rivalries, stirs passions and increases familiarity on the continent is welcome. The semi-final shenanigans may have looked bad for Asia but it was the first time that the tournament really made international headlines. It did wonders for its profile.
Now the competition needs a fitting final and, while there are those who wonder how Al Sadd have made it this far, there can be no such questions regarding Jeonbuk. Even without home advantage, the Motors would be favourites. They have been the standout team in this year's competition and were the best performers in the group stage. Such form continued into the knockout stage. In the second round Tianjin Teda of China lost 3-0 in a one-off match, Japan's Cerezo Osaka were defeated 9-5 on aggregate, then two-time champions Al Ittihad lost 5-3 over 180 minutes of football.
Eleven games, 31 goals scored and six wins out of six at home. Jeonbuk, along with Al ittihad, are the most experienced team in the tournament's eight-year history. The Motors are short of international stars, in fact, none of the team are regulars for South Korea but they are solid in every department. Lee Dong-gook is the tournament's leading scorer with nine goals. The former Middlesbrough marksman missed the second leg of the semi-final through injury and is battling to be fit on time. He should make the bench, though a starting place is looking tough. If so, Jeonbuk will be counting on the mercurial Eninho, the Brazilian playmaker who scored two fine goals in the second leg to down Al Ittihad, including one direct from a corner.
One person definitely missing is the captain. Cho Sung-hwan is one of those players who may never appear for the national team but is a solid K-League performer. The tough-tackling defender with a head for goals adds his name to a lengthening list of players who miss final games due to suspension. Seongnam striker Dzenan Radoncic went through the same bitter-sweet experience last year, helping his team to the final only to realise at the end that he would play no part in it. "You get yellow cards from some silly situations and then you just blame yourself for the rest of your life," he said at the time.
Cho is trying to stay philosophical. "I was telling myself that I had to take care and not get one more yellow card but it was an unavoidable situation," he said. "It's really sad that I cannot play in the final but there are so many good players in our team I am not worried about the match. Instead of playing in the final I will be a good training partner for my team-mates."
Despite the absences, everything points to a Jeonbuk win and that could be the danger for the hosts in front of what will be an expectant full house at their own stadium. The favourites have to be careful. The fuss over the second goal in Suwon had led many to forget that even without it, Al Sadd were nine minutes away from becoming the first team to beat Suwon at home in over two dozen games. Well-organised at the back with players who can cause problems on the counter-attack such as the afore-mentioned African pair of Keita and Niang as well as the talented Ibrahim Khalfan, the Qataris should not be underestimated.
They also have the ability, this year at least, to progress to the next stage while leaving their opponents spluttering in fury. That only adds to a mix of controversy and drama that will hopefully produce a spectacle on Saturday. And if, as expected, Jeonbuk lift the trophy, Al Sadd will be able to console themselves with the fact that as far as the Asian Champions League is concerned, they really haven't been all bad.