The AFC Champions League (abbreviated as ACL) is an annual continental club football competition organised by the Asian Football Confederation, and contested by Asia's top-division football clubs. It is the most prestigious club competition in Asian football, played by the national league champions (and, for some nations, one or more runners-up) of their national associations.[1]

AFC Champions League
Organising bodyAFC
Founded1967; 56 years ago (1967)
(rebranded in 2002)
RegionAsia
Number of teams40 (group stage)
Qualifier forFIFA Club World Cup
Related competitionsAFC Cup (2nd tier)
Current championsJapan Urawa Red Diamonds (3rd title)
Most successful club(s)Saudi Arabia Al-Hilal (4 titles)
Websitethe-afc.com/champions-league
2023–24 AFC Champions League

Introduced in 1967 as the Asian Champion Club Tournament, the competition rebranded and took on its current name in 2002 as a result of the merger between the Asian Club Championship, the Asian Cup Winners' Cup and the Asian Super Cup.

A total of 40 clubs compete in the round-robin group stage of the competition. Clubs from Asia's strongest national leagues receive automatic berths, with clubs from lower-ranked nations eligible to qualify via the qualifying playoffs, and they are also eligible to participate in the AFC Cup. The winner of the AFC Champions League qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup.

The most successful club in the competition is Al-Hilal with a total of four titles. Urawa Red Diamonds are the current champions, having beaten Al-Hilal in the 2022 final.

History Edit

Winners
Season Winners
Asian Champion Club Tournament
1967   Hapoel Tel Aviv
1969   Maccabi Tel Aviv
1970   Taj Tehran
1971   Maccabi Tel Aviv
1972 Cancelled
1973–1984: Not held
Asian Club Championship
1985–86   Daewoo Royals
1986   Furukawa Electric
1987   Yomiuri FC
1988–89   Al-Sadd
1989–90   Liaoning
1990–91   Esteghlal
1991   Al-Hilal
1992–93   PAS Tehran
1993–94   Thai Farmers Bank
1994–95   Thai Farmers Bank
1995   Ilhwa Chunma
1996–97   Pohang Steelers
1997–98   Pohang Steelers
1998–99   Júbilo Iwata
1999–2000   Al-Hilal
2000–01   Suwon Samsung Bluewings
2001–02   Suwon Samsung Bluewings
AFC Champions League
2002–03   Al-Ain
2004   Al-Ittihad
2005   Al-Ittihad
2006   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
2007   Urawa Red Diamonds
2008   Gamba Osaka
2009   Pohang Steelers
2010   Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
2011   Al-Sadd
2012   Ulsan Hyundai
2013   Guangzhou Evergrande
2014   Western Sydney Wanderers
2015   Guangzhou Evergrande
2016   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
2017   Urawa Red Diamonds
2018   Kashima Antlers
2019   Al-Hilal
2020   Ulsan Hyundai
2021   Al-Hilal
2022   Urawa Red Diamonds
2023–24
AFC Champions League Elite
2024–25

1967–1972: Asian Champion Club Tournament Edit

The competition started as the Asian Champion Club Tournament, a tournament for the champions of AFC nations, and had a variety of different formats, with the inaugural tournament staged as a straight knock-out format and the following three editions consisting of a group stage.

While Israeli clubs dominated the first four editions of the competition, this was partly due to the refusal of Arab clubs to play them:

  • In 1970, Lebanese club Homenetmen refused to play Hapoel Tel Aviv in the semi-final, which was scratched with Hapoel advancing to the final.
  • In 1971, Aliyat Al-Shorta of Iraq refused to play Maccabi Tel Aviv on three occasions: in the preliminary round (which was redrawn), in the group stage, and in the final, which was scratched with Maccabi being awarded the championship.[2] During the award ceremony for Maccabi, Aliyat Al-Shorta players waved the Palestinian flag around the field, while the Iraqi media considered Aliyat Al-Shorta as the tournament's winners, with the team holding an open top bus parade in Baghdad.[3]

After the 1972 edition had to be cancelled by the AFC for various reasons, including two Arab clubs being excluded for refusing to commit to playing against Israeli club Maccabi Netanya, the AFC suspended the competition for 14 years, while Israel would be expelled from the AFC in 1974.

1985–2002: Return as the Asian Club Championship Edit

Asia's premier club tournament made its return in 1985 as the Asian Club Championship.[4]

In 1990, the Asian Football Confederation introduced the Asian Cup Winners' Cup, a tournament for the cup winners of each AFC nation, while the 1995 season saw the introduction of the Asian Super Cup, with the winners of the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners' Cup playing against each other.

2002–present: AFC Champions League Edit

 
Japan's Kashima Antlers and Singapore's Warriors FC during a group stage game during the 2009 season at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

The 2002–03 season saw the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners' Cup and Asian Super Cup combine to become the AFC Champions League. League champions and cup winners would qualify for the qualifying playoffs with the best eight clubs from East Asia and the eight best clubs from West Asia progressing to the group stage. The first winners under the AFC Champions League name were Al-Ain, defeating BEC Tero Sasana 2–1 on aggregate. In 2004, 29 clubs from fourteen countries participated and the tournament schedule was changed to March–November.

In the group stage, the 28 clubs were divided into seven groups of four on a regional basis, separating East Asian and West Asian clubs to reduce travel costs, and the groups were played on a home and away basis. The seven group winners along with the defending champions qualified to the quarter-finals. The quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals were played as a two-legged format, with away goals, extra time, and penalties used as tie-breakers.

Expansion Edit

The 2005 season saw Syrian clubs join the competition, thus increasing the number of participating countries to 15, and two years later, following their transfer into the AFC in 2006, Australian clubs were also included in the tournament. However, many blamed the low prize money at that time and expensive travel cost as some of the reasons. The Champions League was expanded to 32 clubs in 2009 with direct entry to the top ten Asian leagues. Each country received up to 4 slots, though no more than one-third of the number of teams in that country's top division, rounded downwards, depending on the strength of their league, professional league structure, marketability, financial status, as well as other criteria set by the AFC Pro-League Committee.[5] The assessment criteria and ranking for participating associations are revised by AFC every two years.[6]

 
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and around 100,000 others watching the 2018 AFC Champions League Final at Azadi Stadium.

The old format saw the eight group winners and eight runners-up qualify to the round of 16, in which group winners played host to the runners-up in two-legged series, matched regionally, with away goals, extra time, and penalties used as tie-breakers. The regional restriction continues all the way until the final, although clubs from the same country couldn't face each other in the quarterfinals unless that country has three or more representatives in the quarterfinals. Since 2013, the final has also been held as a two-legged series, on a home and away basis.[7][8]

In 2021, the group stage was expanded from 32 to 40 teams, with both the West and East Regions having five groups of four teams. The slot allocation for the top six member associations in each region remained unchanged. The 10 group winners and top 3 runners-up per region are now seeded based on a combination table for the round of 16, with the games still matched regionally until the final.[9]

On 25 February 2022, it was announced that the AFC Champions League would go back to an inter-year (autumn to spring) schedule starting with the 2023–24 season. In addition, the existing "3+1" rule for foreign players during matches (3 foreign players and 1 Asian foreigner) has been expanded to "5+1" (5 foreign players and 1 Asian foreigner).[10]

Reform Edit

On 23 December 2022, it was announced that the AFC competition structure would change from the established formats. Under the new plans, the top club competition of Asian football will only consist of 24 teams, divided into East and West regions (12 teams each), with each team playing eight other teams from their region (four teams at home and four teams away) in the brand-new league stage, which replaces the usual group stage. The top eight teams per region will advance to the knockout stage, where only the round of 16 will be played over two legs, and from the quarter-finals onward the matches will be held at a neutral venue.[11] On 14 August 2023, it was confirmed that the new format would come into effect from the 2024–25 season onwards. In addition, the name of Asia's top-tier competition was changed to AFC Champions League Elite.[12]

Women's rights in Iranian football Edit

By 2021, the various problems with the Iranian sides were attracting media attention; international Arabic and English-language media reported the violation of women's rights in the stadiums of Iranian sides.

On top of that, Iranian women were banned from football stadiums for about 40 years, by the Iranian government.[13][14] In 2019, Iranian women were first allowed to watch football at stadiums, but not during ACL games.[14][15] Before that, FIFA had pressured Iran to let women into the stadiums; Iran relented, but capped the number of women to watch the 2018 final.[14][16] In 2021, the AFC investigated the matter, in the hope of allowing unrestricted attendance whenever Iranian clubs are involved.[17]

Format Edit

Qualification Edit

 
Map of AFC countries whose teams reached the group stage of the AFC Champions League
  AFC member country that has been represented in the group stage
  AFC member country that has not been represented in the group stage

As of the 2021 edition of the tournament, the AFC Champions League has commenced with a double round-robin group stage of 40 teams, which is preceded by qualifying matches for teams that do not receive direct entry to the competition proper. Teams are also split into east and west zones to progress separately in the tournament.

The number of teams that each association enters into the AFC Champions League is determined annually through criteria as set by the AFC Competitions Committee.[18] The criteria, which is a modified version of the UEFA coefficient, measures such thing as marketability and stadia to determine the specific number of berths that an association receives. The higher an association's ranking as determined by the criteria, the more teams represent the association in the Champions League, and the fewer qualification rounds the association's teams must compete in.

Tournament Edit

The tournament proper begins with a group stage of 40 teams, divided into ten groups. Seeding is used whilst making the draw for this stage, with teams from the same country not being drawn into groups together. The group stage is divided into two zones; the first zone is the five East Asian groups and the other zone is the five West Asian groups. Each team meets the others in its group home and away in a round-robin format. The winning team from each group (five in each zone) and the six best runners-up (three from each zone) then progress to the next round.

For this stage, three group winners plays against the three best runners-up from another group from their zone of the group stage while the other two group winners from each zone play against each other. The tournament uses the away goals rule: if the aggregate score of the two games is tied after 180 minutes, then the team who scored more goals at their opponent's stadium advances. If still tied the clubs play extra time, where the away goals rule is no longer applied. If still tied after extra time, the tie shall be decided by a penalty shootout. Winners of each tie advance to the next round, with the East and West zones continue to be kept part until the final.[18]

The group stage and round of 16 matches are played through the first half of the year (February–May), whilst the knock-out stage thereafter is played during the second half of the year (August–November). The knock-out ties are played in a two-legged format, including the final.

Allocation Edit

Teams from 24 AFC countries have reached the group stage of the AFC Champions League. The allocation of teams by member countries is listed below; asterisks represent occasions where at least one team was eliminated in qualification prior to the group stage. 32 AFC countries have had teams participate in qualification, and countries that have never had teams reach the group stage are not shown.

Associations Entrants
2002–03 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023–24
East Asia
  Australia Part of OFC 2 2 2 2 2 3 1* 3 2* 2* 3 2* 2* 3 0 2* 1
  China PR 2 2 2 2 2 2 4 4 4 3 4 4 4 4 3* 4 4 4 2* 2 3*
  Hong Kong 0* 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 1* 1* 0* 0* 1 1 1*
  Indonesia 0* 2 2 0 2 0 1* 1* 1* 0* 0 0 0* 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0 0 0
  Japan 2 2 2 2 2 3 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3* 4 4 4
  South Korea 2 2 2 2 3 2 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4
  Malaysia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0* 1* 1* 1 1 1
  Philippines 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0* 2 1* 1
  Singapore 0* 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 1 1 1
  Thailand 2 2 2 0 1 2 0* 0* 0* 1* 2 1* 1* 1* 1* 1* 1* 1* 4 2* 3*
  Vietnam 0* 2 2 2 1 2 0 0* 0 0 0 0* 1* 1* 0* 0* 0* 0* 1 1 1*
Total 8 12 12 8 13 13 16 16 15 15 15 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 20 19 20
West Asia
  Bahrain 0* 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0 0 0* 0 0* 0* 0 0
  India 0* 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 1 1 1
  Iran 2 2 2 2 1 2 4 4 4 3* 3* 4 4 3* 4 4 3* 4 4 2 3*
  Iraq 1* 2 2 2 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0 0 0 0 1* 1* 2* 1* 1
  Jordan 0* 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 0* 1 1 1*
  Kuwait 0* 1 2 2 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 0 0 0 0* 0* 0* 0 0
  Qatar 1* 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 4 4 4 2* 2* 2* 4 3* 2* 3* 4 2*
  Saudi Arabia 1* 2 3 3 2 2 4 4 4 3* 4 4 4 4 4 2 4 4 3* 4 4
  Syria 0* 0 2 2 2 2 0 0* 0* 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0
  Tajikistan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0* 0* 1 1 1
  Turkmenistan 1* 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1
  United Arab Emirates 1* 3 2 2 2 2 4 4 4 4 4 3* 2* 3* 4 4 3* 4 3* 3* 2*
  Uzbekistan 1* 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 3* 2* 1* 4 4 2* 2* 2* 1* 2 2 4
Total 8 14 17 17 15 16 16 16 17 17 17 16 16 16 16 16 16 16 20 20 20
Total
Finals 16 26 29 25 28 29 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 32 40 39 40
Qualifying 53 26 29 25 28 29 35 37 36 37 35 47 49 45 47 46 51 52 45 46 53

Prize money Edit

 
Tournament's trophy since 2009, following the logo redesign.

The prize money for the 2021 AFC Champions League:[19]

Phase Purse
(USD)
Travel Subsidy
(USD per match)
Preliminary stage N/A $30,000
Playoff stage N/A $30,000
Group stages Win: $50,000
Draw: $10,000
$45,000
Round of 16 $100,000 $45,000
Quarter-finals $150,000 $45,000
Semi-finals $250,000 $45,000
Final Champions: $4,000,000
Runners-up: $2,000,000
$90,000

Marketing Edit

Sponsorship Edit

Like the FIFA World Cup, the AFC Champions League is sponsored by a group of multinational corporations, in contrast to the single main sponsor typically found in national top-flight leagues.

The tournament's current main sponsors are:

Video game Edit

The current license holder for the AFC Champions League video game is Konami with the Pro Evolution Soccer series.[23] The license also includes the competing teams.

Records and statistics Edit

Performances by club Edit

Performances in the Asian Club Championship and AFC Champions League by club
Club
Title(s) Runners-up Seasons won Seasons runner-up
  Al-Hilal 4 5 1991, 1999–2000, 2019, 2021 1986, 1987, 2014, 2017, 2022
  Pohang Steelers 3 1 1996–97, 1997–98, 2009 2021
  Urawa Red Diamonds 3 1 2007, 2017, 2022 2019
  Esteghlal 2 2 1970, 1990–91 1991, 1998–99
  Seongnam FC 2 2 1995, 2010 1996–97, 2004
  Al-Ittihad 2 1 2004, 2005 2009
  Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2 1 2006, 2016 2011
  Maccabi Tel Aviv1 2 0 1969, 1971
  Al-Sadd 2 0 1988–89, 2011
  Thai Farmers Bank2 2 0 1993–94, 1994–95
  Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2 0 2000–01, 2001–02
  Ulsan Hyundai 2 0 2012, 2020
  Guangzhou 2 0 2013, 2015
  Júbilo Iwata 1 2 1998–99 1999–2000, 2000–01
  Al-Ain 1 2 2002–03 2005, 2016
  Hapoel Tel Aviv1 1 1 1967 1970
  Liaoning2 1 1 1989–90 1990–91
  Busan IPark 1 0 1985–86
  JEF United Chiba 1 0 1986
  Tokyo Verdy 1 0 1987
  PAS Tehran2 1 0 1992–93
  Gamba Osaka 1 0 2008
  Western Sydney Wanderers 1 0 2014
  Kashima Antlers 1 0 2018
  Al-Ahli 0 2 1985–86, 2012
  FC Seoul 0 2 2001–02, 2013
  Persepolis 0 2 2018, 2020
  Selangor 0 1 1967
  Yangzee2 0 1 1969
  Aliyat Al-Shorta 0 1 1971
  Al-Rasheed2 0 1 1988–89
  Yokohama F. Marinos 0 1 1989–90
  Al-Shabab 0 1 1992–93
  Oman Club 0 1 1993–94
  Al-Arabi 0 1 1994–95
  Al-Nassr 0 1 1995
  Dalian Shide2 0 1 1997–98
  Police Tero 0 1 2002–03
  Al-Karamah 0 1 2006
  Sepahan 0 1 2007
  Adelaide United 0 1 2008
  Zob Ahan 0 1 2010
  Shabab Al-Ahli 0 1 2015

1 In 1974, the Israel Football Association was expelled from the Asian Football Confederation due to political pressure, and became a full UEFA member in 1994. As a result, Israeli clubs no longer participate in AFC tournaments but in their UEFA counterparts instead.
2 Teams that no longer exist.


Performances by nation Edit

Performances in finals by nation
Nation Titles Runners-up Total
  South Korea 12 7 19
  Japan 8 4 12
  Saudi Arabia 6 10 16
  Iran 3 6 9
  China 3 2 5
  Israel 3 1 4
  Qatar 2 1 3
  Thailand 2 1 3
  United Arab Emirates 1 3 4
  Australia 1 1 2
  Iraq 0 2 2
  Malaysia 0 1 1
  Oman 0 1 1
  Syria 0 1 1

Performances by region Edit

Federation (region) Titles Total
EAFF (East Asia) East Zone 23 26
AFF (Southeast Asia) 3
WAFF (West Asia) West Zone 9 12
CAFA (Central Asia) 3
SAFF (South Asia) 0

Note: Israeli clubs, winners of the 1967, 1969 and 1971 editions, are not included.

Awards Edit

Most Valuable Player Edit

Year Player Club Ref.
1996–97   An Ik-soo   Pohang Steelers [24]
1997–98   Ahmed Al-Dokhi   Al Hilal [25]
1998–99   Seydou Traoré   Al-Ain [26]
1999–2000   Sérgio Ricardo   Al Hilal [27]
2000–01   Zoltan Sabo   Suwon Samsung Bluewings [28]
2001–02
2002–03   Therdsak Chaiman   BEC Tero Sasana [29]
2004   Redha Tukar   Al-Ittihad [30]
2005   Mohammed Noor   Al-Ittihad [31]
2006   Choi Jin-cheul   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors [32]
2007   Yuichiro Nagai   Urawa Red Diamonds
2008   Yasuhito Endō   Gamba Osaka
2009   No Byung-jun   Pohang Steelers [33]
2010   Sasa Ognenovski   Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma [34]
2011   Lee Dong-gook   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors [35]
2012   Lee Keun-ho   Ulsan Hyundai [36]
2013   Muriqui   Guangzhou Evergrande [37]
2014   Ante Covic   Western Sydney Wanderers [38]
2015   Ricardo Goulart   Guangzhou Evergrande [39]
2016   Omar Abdulrahman   Al-Ain [40]
2017   Yōsuke Kashiwagi   Urawa Red Diamonds [41]
2018   Yuma Suzuki   Kashima Antlers [42]
2019   Bafétimbi Gomis   Al-Hilal [43]
2020   Yoon Bit-garam   Ulsan Hyundai [44]
2021   Salem Al-Dawsari   Al-Hilal [45]
2022   Hiroki Sakai   Urawa Red Diamonds [46]

Top scorers Edit

Year Player Club Goals
2002–03   Hao Haidong   Dalian Shide 9
2004   Kim Do-hoon   Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 9
2005   Mohamed Kallon   Al-Ittihad 6
2006   Magno Alves   Gamba Osaka 8
2007   Mota   Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 7
2008   Nantawat Tansopa   Krung Thai Bank 9
2009   Leandro   Gamba Osaka 10
2010   Jose Mota   Suwon Samsung Bluewings 9
2011   Lee Dong-gook   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 9
2012   Ricardo Oliveira   Al-Jazira 12
2013   Muriqui   Guangzhou Evergrande 13
2014   Asamoah Gyan   Al-Ain 12
2015   Ricardo Goulart   Guangzhou Evergrande 8
2016   Adriano   FC Seoul 13
2017   Omar Kharbin   Al-Hilal 10
2018   Baghdad Bounedjah   Al-Sadd 13
2019   Bafétimbi Gomis   Al-Hilal 11
2020   Abderrazak Hamdallah[47]   Al Nassr 7
2021   Michael Olunga[48]   Al-Duhail 9
2022   Edmilson Junior[49]   Al-Duhail 8

Fair Play Award winners Edit

Year Club
2007   Urawa Red Diamonds
2008   Gamba Osaka
2009   Pohang Steelers
2010   Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
2011   Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
2012   Ulsan Hyundai
2013   FC Seoul
2014   Al-Hilal
2015   Guangzhou Evergrande
2016   Al-Ain
2017   Urawa Red Diamonds
2018   Persepolis
2019   Urawa Red Diamonds
2020   Ulsan Hyundai[44]
2021   Al-Hilal[50]
2022   Urawa Red Diamonds

See also Edit

References Edit

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