top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

An AFC Cup playoffs preview with 'The Ball in Asia'

The 2023-24 AFC Cup has been an epic journey for those in Australia to follow, from the lows of shock losses away to Southeast Asian opponents to the many highs of impressive home form. A serious opportunity has now arisen for the Central Coast Mariners or Macarthur FC: the possibility of becoming just the second Australian side in history to claim a piece of continental silverware since Australia joined the AFC. Ahead of tonight's blockbuster clash, Front Page Football took the opportunity to talk with Asian football content creator Wael Ammar, better known by his creative name 'The Ball in Asia', to gain an outside look into Australian football heading into the latter stages.

The AFC Cup trophy in all its glory, to be awarded in the coming months. (Image: The AFC Hub)

We, Australian football fans, critics, pundits, and even players and coaches, must understand the tournament better for an ultimate preview of the AFC Cup playoff bracket. However, this understanding may seem redundant due to the fact it is the last AFC Cup before the format soon changes. The AFC Cup will turn into a proper second tier competition to the Asian Champions League, as opposed to the regionalised and broken up format we are seeing play out at the moment.

Firstly, we wanted to know Ammar's thoughts on what will be the most significant change for sides further down the Asian pyramid after this campaign comes to an end.

"Well, the AFC Cup has been really interesting this year, we had a lot of teams coming out of nowhere like Mongolia's Ulaanbataar and Malaysian minnows Terengganu. Though talking about the change, I think it was needed," Ammar told Front Page Football.

"You need to raise the importance of the main tournament, and also balance this with teams from certain countries that are trying to get to another level. The AFC Cup as a second tier was nice, but the knockout stages are perhaps quite odd.

"As for the restructure, is it the way to go? I guess we'll see how it pans out, and perhaps instead of calling it the 'ACL 2' we could have found a better name, though that is what it is."

So what about a prediction from the expert on how these finals will pan out, and if either the Central Coast Mariners or Macarthur make it to the final hurdle, how will a West-Asian side square up against them?

"Well firstly, I am never great with predictions, but the all-A-League match between Macarthur and [the] Mariners is going to be really enjoyable," Ammar said.

"I'm seeing the Mariners a little bit ahead at the moment, [and] also looking forward to the match with Odisha because of the meeting with former Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna; it shouldn't be the easiest of matches."

An A-League Men reunion with former Johnny Warren Medalist Roy Krishna would be a special event, awaiting either Macarthur or the Mariners. (Image: NDTV Sport)

It should be noted why Ammar makes mention of Odisha specifically, as the ASEAN Zone winner will be either Macarthur or the Mariners, and either side's next challenge is against the Indian Super League outfit, who were crowned winners of the South Asia Zone by winning Group D.

Ammar said that should Macarthur or the Mariners progress beyond Odisha, Iraqi side Al-Kahrabaa would be their most difficult challenge, noting it would "be a coin flip".

"With any other opponent from West Asia, I believe the last AFC Cup is heading to Australia," he added, believing either A-League Men side should be strongly favoured to win the continental trophy.

However, in the time since this interview, Al-Kahrabaa lost on penalties to Lebanon's Al-Ahed, who will instead contest the West Asia Zone Final against Omani side Al-Nahda, who themselves had a come-from-behind win over two legs against Bahraini side Al-Riffa. This shakeup in the West Asian bracket means Ammar is predicting an Australian side to win the tournament.

Australian football fans should be undeniably excited to see how this tournament pans out, with the knowledge that even in the eyes of foreign AFC observers, an Australian continental title may be around the corner.

We also asked Ammar for his insight into Australian football and started by addressing that he is a Syrian who also grew up in Italy, and thus there should be no guesses as to what brought the game down under to his attention.

"That (Syria's 2018 World Cup qualifying elimination to Australia) is painful to remember. So close yet so far, and also the 2019 Asian Cup loss wasn't easy to digest," he said.

Continuing on the theme of big moments, Ammar grew up in Italy and was just old enough to remember the golden generation.

"Honestly, I have to say, as a Syrian raised in Italy, my first contact with Australian football was back in 2006. The controversial last-minute penalty scored by Totti in the World Cup; I remember also following Mark Bresciano's career with Palermo and Lazio, and I loved his goal celebrations," he added.

This interest has then grown to a love for the A-League Men in more recent times, through some Italian icons gracing the game and a particular narrative brewing with the latter stages of a legend's career.

"So I started to know about the A-League when Alessandro Del Piero moved to Sydney FC. It was a huge move, but then [was] followed some years later by Alessandro Diamanti to Western United, who is now coach of the Melbourne City youth team," Ammar explained.

It cannot be understated what Del Piero's impact did for the A-League's image. (Image: Fox Sports Australia)

What about the broader aim of trying to grow football on an entire continent? How does Ammar see the game's direction in this part of the world?

"Asian football in the last few years has improved a lot, and in the eyes of European and American fans now, there's more interest than ever on what's going on in Asia, thanks to the great work done in the major European leagues by Son Heung-Min, Kaoru Mitoma, Take Kubo, Mehdi Taremi, and this last Asian Cup has certainly brought a lot more attention than the ones in the past. If we look back 15-20 years, the difference is huge."

Paramount to this growth, Ammar says, is the A-League Men, and his views on the competition make a stirring case, pointing to names that have a wider reach overseas than some of us down under may realise.

"I think that if you want to start to follow Asian football, you definitely should watch the A-League as well; in some ways, it looks more like a European league, but with obvious influences from Australia's time in Asia. My favourite players in terms of the A-League are Jamie Maclaren and Adam Taggart, but the all-time favourite, [it] is difficult not to say Del Piero," he added.

The time difference to the rest of the world, though, can be tough, and Ammar admitted it is a factor that holds back a more global audience from tuning in.

"I like to watch it (the A-League Men) and I try to stay up to date as much as possible. Watching it from Europe, the time difference is maybe not the easiest, but [it] is worth it and I'm definitely curious on what's going to happen with the next expansion," he said.

Knowing Ammar's position as a keen viewer of many leagues and competitions in Europe, it was interesting to explore why he thinks development pathways are lacking in Australian football, and why results have ultimately suffered when Australian teams have, on paper, been good enough to have success in domestic Asian competition.

"It is a mixture of things; Japan and South Korea are producing talent at an impressive pace; the likes of China and Thailand can (at times) spend a little more for outside talent, which gives them great strength," Ammar said.

"We also have to consider that the kind of football played in South East and East Asia is slightly different from the one played in the A-League, so that is something that should be considered.

"We also have to say that Melbourne City has been really unlucky on not getting to the knockout stages in the last two editions. Luck is always needed in this kind of competition."



It is also worth mentioning that perhaps tactically, the A-League Men is offering a dryer and more uninspired version of football compared to parts of Asia. It is certainly food for thought ahead of what will be an exhilarating finish to the AFC Cup.

For related content, check out Ammar's YouTube channel 'The Ball in Asia' for a breakdown of all things AFC related, and an occasional outsider's view on Australian football and the A-League Men.

Macarthur and the Central Coast Mariners kick off at 7pm AEDT tonight, with coverage of the match available on 10Play and Paramount+.

1 comentario

27 feb

Can Wael shed some light on why the East Asia zones play so many more matches than West Asia? (Eg Mariners v Macarthur, Mariners v Odisha, Mariners v Taichung/Abdysh-Ata, then the game against West Asia)

Me gusta
bottom of page