South Asia could have its own Champions League by 2014 [DAWN]

KARACHI, July 30: If the sponsorship problems can be sorted out, South Asia could well have its own version of the Champions League as early as next year.

The SAFF Club Championship has been on the discussion table of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) for a couple of years with the region’s football governing body pulling the plug on it at the last minute.

“It could happen in 2014,” PFF secretary Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi told Dawn on Tuesday following the draw for the SAFF Championships in Nepal.

According to reports received here, the SAFF Club Championship came under discussion during the draw for the region’s marquee football event.

SAFF president Kazi Salahuddin, who is also the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) chief, has been keen to kick-start the event since he took over at the helm in 2009.

The first edition for the event was scheduled to be held in September 2011 in Bangladesh with the support of then-AFC president Mohammad Bin Hammam.

The top two teams from Bangladesh and India, along with the domestic title-holders from the other six SAFF members — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives — were due to take part.

The event didn’t see daylight however and was postponed for a year and in September, during last year’s SAFF Executive Committee meeting, the body decided to scrap the event, citing lack of funds and a busy calendar.

Talk of possible revival of the event comes months after the announcement that the ASEAN Super League will be held from 2015 which will see domestic winners from South East Asian countries take part.

The ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) is hopeful that the event will provide a boost to the region’s club sides, offering them better financial rewards which will ultimately help them compete for greater honours at the Asian level.

The AFC Champions League is the continent’s top club competition but is has largely been dominated by sides from the Middle East and the Far East.

Champion sides from the SAFF region don’t even get an entry into the Champions League and instead play in Asia’s second and third-tier tournaments — the AFC Cup and the AFC President’s Cup respectively.

The SAFF Club Championship is expected to provide the region’s sides with a platform to get more exposure and ultimately help the region’s top club sides improve so to one day compete in the Champions League. And in Kathmandu on Tuesday, Kazi Salahuddin vowed to leave no stone unturned to make the event a reality.

“The club championship is one of my biggest dreams. In Europe, it is the most popular competition,” he said referring to the UEFA Champions League which is arguably world football’s greatest club extravaganza.

“There are two big problems, however, sponsorships and India.”

Funds are the main problem why the championship has failed to take off. However, the sponsorship problem is one which the SAFF president has vowed to tackle.

“Sponsorship is something that can be arranged,” he said.

Recently, Indian-based event management company Celebrity Management Group (CMG) had welcomed any such initiative and showed willingness to organise such an event.

“We are willing to do our best in improving the standard of football in the region,” CMG’s executive director Bhaswar Goswami told Dawn earlier this year.

However, it seems that the relationship between the CMG and Salahuddin — along with the heads of PFF and the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) — has deteriorated after the company failed to organise a tri-nation series between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in England in June after creating much hype.

As far as the matter with India is concerned, Salahuddin has said he will talk to the AIFF about the time to hold the event after India’s football governing body had expressed reservations about the slot for the tournament.

“AIFF should give us time to hold the Championship,” he said, in comments reported by Indian news agency Press Trust of India. “I will request AIFF president Praful Patel for that.”

As far as Pakistan are concerned, they have shown great interest in the tournament.

“If the tournament starts, we’ll have no problem in sending our champion team [winners of the Pakistan Premier Football League],” Lodhi said.

Meanwhile Tariq Lutfi, the head coach of Pakistan champions Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), has welcomed the initiation of the tournament.

“It will be a very good initiative,” Lutfi told Dawn on Tuesday. “If it takes place, it will improve the standard of the teams in the region.

“It will help club football prosper in the region as the champion teams from SAFF region [except for India] participate in the AFC President’s Cup.

“It results in very less exposure for the players and so they don’t get a chance to grow as they don’t face quality opposition more often.”

Lutfi paid special emphasis on the financial rewards the tournament will offer.

“It will help us get better sponsors and in turn, it will help us get better players from abroad,” he said.

“Money can also be made by hosting matches of the event [if the tournament is played on home and away basis].”

Nasir Ismail, the head-coach of Pakistan’s Cup holders National Bank of Pakistan (NBP), however reckons that the winners of the National Challenge Cup should also get a chance to participate in such a tournament.

“It will be good and maybe it will also offer an incentive to the domestic cup winners as the league champions already feature in the President’s Cup,” he told Dawn in May after leading his side to glory in Bahawalpur.

Till next year, though, Pakistan and the rest of the SAFF region will have their fingers crossed on the future of the Club Championship