Americas Champions’ League plan could learn from Asia’s failures

EDITORIAL – Media Mogul Riccardo Silva is currently hatching an ambitious plan that could change the landscape of global soccer. His latest project aims to combine the wealthy North American market with the footballing brilliance of South America in order to create the ‘Americas Champions’ League‘. Silva claims to have the support of some of South America’s biggest clubs such as Corinthians and Flamengo, and is confident that he will succeed in his plan to unite CONCACAF and CONMEBOL in order to create a combined club knockout tournament. This isn’t the first time that the creation of a new global competition has been suggested, with the English Premier League flirting with the idea of a ‘39th game’ to be played abroad, the potential enlargement of the World Club Championship, and the growth of overseas pre-season tournaments featuring Europe’s best clubs, with the idea of an Anglo-American cup being the latest idea put forward.

Silva’s proposal certainly has some strong selling points. Currently the European Champions’ league draws a huge global audience, which Silva wants to tap into. Creating a rival competition that can compete with the European Champions’ League as an equal will generate interest around the world. The USA is one of the world leaders at marketing, but despite the steady rise in quality of the MLS, it is still seen as inferior to European soccer. The advent of an Americas Champions’ League could change that. The increased money from television rights would allow MLS to increase its salary cap, and this combined with the tournament’s prestige would attract better quality players to the league, further enhancing its reputation. The increased money that South American clubs would receive could help prevent the continent’s best players from crossing the Atlantic for a bigger payday. If Silva’s plan works, then in a decade’s time, the next generation’s Neymar’s and Messi’s will be choosing Buenos Aires over Barcelona and MLS will be considered one of the world’s best leagues.

That is the plan at least. The reality is that getting the tournament started will be tough, and there are many unanswered questions. The elephant in the room is the sheer distances involved between the different clubs. For example, were LA Galaxy to face Boca Juniors, they would have to contend with a fifteen hour flight first. It is possible to play European matches on weeknights without disrupting the domestic schedules too much because the distances are so much shorter, Manchester and Barcelona are only two and a half hours apart for example. The large distances involved in the Americas Champions’ League mean that teams would need significant rest periods before and after matches, which would cause havoc in the domestic schedules. Fans of the clubs would effectively have to use their annual vacation to be able to attend games, resulting in a reduced away attendance and subsequently a poorer atmosphere.

A look across the Pacific to Asia highlights some of the potential issues. Initially, the Asian Football Confederation wanted to follow the European model, but it quickly became apparent that this model didn’t export well. The 2010 final was the last to be played in a neutral venue, but when fewer than thirty-thousand spectators attended the match in Tokyo, it was clear that a change was necessary. In the two years after that, the venue for the final was decided by a coin toss, the winners of which had a huge advantage, which was evident in Ulsan’s three-nil victory over Al-Ahli who had traveled almost nine thousand kilometers to play the match at the south-eastern tip of the Korean peninsula. After that, the finals became two legged affairs. In order to shorten the distances traveled, the ACL was split regionally into an Eastern half and Western half in 2014, with the best teams in each half only meeting in the final. Such a proposition for the Americas Champions’ League would completely nullify its main attraction of MLS and Liga MX teams facing off against the best teams from Brazil and Argentina, and would basically turn the competition into a one-off match, similar to a World Club Championship semi-final.

Major League Soccer’s success, or at least the reason why it hasn’t gone the way of the old NASL, has been its adaption of domestic sporting practices such as wage-caps and play-offs, rather than importing a carbon-copy of the European league system. With the distances involved and the differences between the MLS and the European leagues, Silva’s plan will most likely fail if it doesn’t take into account differences between Europe and the Americas in how football is run, scheduled, and watched. For the Americas Champions’ League to succeed, as MLS has in it’s 20 years of existence, it too will have to create its own model.

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