South Korea and Japan’s domination of East Asian soccer is being further eroded, judging by the make-up of the quarter-finalists in this season’s Asian Champions League.
The two nations have between them won all but one of the past seven Asian Champions League titles — with the exception being a penalty shootout loss in the final — and have been the top dogs in the eastern half of the continental competition throughout that period.
However, this year’s results show the dip last year may have been the start of a trend rather than a blip. Japan’s slide started a while back. On Wednesday, Kashiwa Reysol became just the second J-League team to reach the last eight in the past four years.
Now Korean representation is also falling.
Despite providing all four quarter-finalists from the eastern half of the draw in 2010 and three in 2011, the K-League has just one team in this year’s edition; the same as last year.
So open is the tournament that the last eight is made up of teams from seven different countries. East Asia will send clubs from Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand, while the western half has two from Saudi Arabia and representatives from Iran and Qatar.
The presence of Guangzhou Evergrande — the biggest-spending team in Asia with 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi at the helm — is not a surprise, but the presence of Buriram United is less expected. The team, owned by controversial politician Newin Chidchob, has become a powerhouse in Thailand and is the first from South-East Asia to reach the last eight since 2003.
Montenegrin international Dejan Damjanovic has played in three Asian Champions League campaigns for South Korea’s FC Seoul and was in action against Buriram in the group stage.
“Standards are rising,” said Damjanovic, who scored against England in a vital 2014 World Cup qualifier in March. “I was really surprised how well Buriram United played. Especially when they play at home, they are very tough opponents, but are improving away from home too.”
“It’s really interesting, four teams from four countries in the east. It is more interesting to watch and the games are more exciting. The future will be better for us to play in full stadiums,” he added.
South Korea has won 10 continental titles in total, including three of the last four, but Damjanovic welcomes the challenge.
“The K-League is one of the best in Asia and all Korean teams think they can win the Champions League, but it is harder now. I remember in 2009 we played Indonesian and Chinese teams. They had good foreign players, but the domestic players were weaker than they are now. You can see how they have improved and how the coaching has improved too. It is much harder now, it is totally different football,” Damjanovic said.
Buriram won its first leg at home 2-1 against Bunyodkor and held the Uzbekistan powerhouse to a goalless draw in Tashkent on Tuesday.
“We are strong enough to become a top-10 team in Asia,” Newin said. “The win is for Thai fans and our supporters. Thai football is not an underdog to any team in Asia now.”
Damjanovic believes that Buriram is not yet good enough to win the title, but the same cannot be said of Guangzhou. No Chinese team has been crowned Asian champion since 1989-1990, but Evergrande reached the last eight last year and did the same on Wednesday, overcoming the challenge of Central Coast Mariners from Australia to win 5-1 over two legs.