Asian club football given huge boost with Champions League launch

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AFC - The winners of the first AFC Champions League will receive US$500,000, five times more than the first place prize for previous Asian club competitions, it was revealed at the official launch of the exciting new tournament here on Tuesday.

The AFC Champions League, which will climax next May, has been created by the Asian Football Confederation to give clubs in the continent more incentive to play in Asia-wide tournaments with prize money and subsidies for staging games topping US$3 million.

The new tournament, which will replace the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners' Cup and the Asian Super Cup, is to be modeled on the successful Champions League in Europe.

Apart from the US$500,000 first prize, the runners up will receive US$300,000 and the 51 competing teams from 29 countries throughout the world's most populous continent will be given subsidies ranging from US$10,000, for first round participants, to US$100,000 for sides making it to the last four.

"There are huge financial incentives for clubs competing in the AFC Champions League," said Dato' Peter Velappan, general secretary of the AFC.

"With the World Cup, Asia gave world football a new beginning.

"Now Asian club football has a new beginning with the AFC Champions League. We face a new challenge, a new era for club football.

"The AFC Champions League will create a new image for football in Asia and will help make the clubs stronger and the leagues they compete in more competitive as teams strive for places in the AFC Champions League.

"This competition is sure to be a winner. After the success of the World Cup in Korea Republic and Japan everybody wants to invest in Asian football, everybody wants to be a part of Asian football. It is a gold mine."

Dates for the early rounds of the AFC Champions League in East and West Asia have been fixed, so as to create a focus for supporters throughout the continent, and the draw graded so as to match teams of similar ability and avoid heavy losses.

The first match in the new competition will be a preliminary round showdown between Al Wihdat of Jordan and Lebanon's Al Nejmeh, the first leg being staged in Amman, Jordan later today.

The preliminary stages will finish on November 27 with the big guns of Asian football entering the competition at the 16-team group stage to be played in four centralized venues from March 9-15 next year.

Asian powerhouses Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, the winners of the last Asian Cup Winners Cup, Japanese hotshots Kashima Antlers and powerful Dalian Shide from China were amongst the eight teams seeded into the quarter-final group stages next March.

The other five seeds are BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand, drawn with Kashima in group A, K-League champions Seongnam Ilhwa, in group B with Dalian Shide, Al Ain of UAE, grouped alongside Al Hilal, and Iranian champs Pirouzi who are in group D with Al Talaba of Iraq.

Groups A and B will be played amongst East Asian teams with C and D matching sides from West Asia. The winners will go into the semi-finals in April.

FIFA president Joseph Blatter, one of the high profile guests at the launch, has given the new AFC Champions League a ringing endorsement.

"This is a wonderful initiative from the AFC and a great step forward for Asian football," he said. "We have to work on improving club football in this region - I congratulate the AFC in making this move.

"The AFC Champions League will greatly enhance club football in Asia. As we saw at the World Cup, Asian football at an international level is on the rise. This competition will help raise the standard of club, and international football, even further."

Jurgen Klinsmann, the German star who excelled with club and country, also backed the new AFC Champions League.

"This is a great step forward for Asia," said Klinsmann. "I have played in Asia and against Asian teams and they are technically very good. Club football is the game's lifeblood and the AFC Champions League will help raise the standard of football in this region. I will be watching the progress with interest."