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The AFC Champions League is the largest continental tournament in the world in terms of geographical extent. Since its founding in 1967, the competition has hosted clubs from regions as far apart and with societies as different as Australia, Qatar or Japan. A singularity that makes it a unique football universe where scorers who became golf stars, the bank of Thai peasants, the idol of the Qatari team or the only Kenyan to have scored a goal in LaLiga Santander coexist.

For the first time in history, this world full of fascinating stories that started its 2021 edition in April with 40 teams from about twenty different countries will be opened to the eyes of Spanish fans by the hand of LaLigaSportsTV. On the Internet television platform (OTT), dedicated to making more than thirty sports and football tournaments such as the Russian league visible, you can follow all the matches, from the group stage to the final that will take place next November.

The great claim to date has been the couple formed by two LaLiga Santander myths, Xavi Hernández and Santi Cazorla, explains Jaume Zorita, head of content at LaLigaSportsTV. “The parties of the Qatari Al-Sadd triple in audience to those of the rest. In fact, the presence of old acquaintances of Spanish football in other teams, such as Raúl Baena (Kitchee SC) or Paulinho (Gaungzhou FC) is another of the great claims for the spectators ”, he explains.

Although Al-Sadd was eliminated in the first round, the possibility of a Spanish lifting this trophy for the first time – a merit approached by Osmar Barba, captain of the South Korean FC Seoul who in 2016 planted in the semifinals – remains one of the great incentives. Lucas Sepiruka, MediaPro’s narrator for the competition, points others to the list. “It is a calmer football, not very tactical and less fast than in Europe, but where there is great competition between the teams. It is also very interesting to see the modernity and infrastructure of the stadiums in some countries because it serves as a preview of what we will be able to enjoy in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, ”he says.

Here we review some of the stories that make the Asian Champions League a fascinating tournament for lovers of the beautiful game with Dani Deuder, creator of the website Soccer from Asia and one of the most illustrated in Spain of Asian football.

The resurgence of the Kenyan who made history at Girona FC

The cold afternoon of January 13, 2016 will remain forever in the memory of Michel Olunga, all of Montilivi and all of Kenya. At the Girona FC stadium, the stands ended up roaring “Olunga, Ballon d’Or!” That day, the young Kenyan, the second from the African country to debut in LaLiga Santander, became the first (and only) white-haired player to score a hat-trick in the elite of Spanish football.

Michael Olunga celebrates a goal in a match in this edition of the Asian Champions League. Getty

Despite the feat, the romance between Olunga and Girona did not last long, just a few months. After a career that has taken him with only 27 years through Kenya, Sweden, Spain, China and Japan, he has arrived in Qatar, where he has found an opportunity to reprint his name in history. He has scored nine of the eleven goals for Al Duhail SC in a competition in which he is, for the moment, the top scorer. Olunga himself said in an interview on Kenyan television K24: “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how you started. How you finish the race is what matters ”.

South Korean hegemony

South Korea is the country whose clubs have lifted the Asian Champions League the most, thirteen times in total, ahead of Japan and Saudi Arabia, with seven and five crowns respectively. Such is their dominance that the only time that two teams from the same country met in a final, in 1997 and 2002, was in two duels between South Korean teams, first between FC Pohang Steelers and Ilhwa Chunma and then between Suwon Samsung Bluewings FC and LG Cheetahs.

Among the proper names of the South Korean domain, those of Lee Dong-Gook and Kwoun Sun Tae stand out. The first, retired last year, is one of the top scorers in the history of the Asian Champions League and a real star in his country, where he is married to Miss Korea 1997 and was one of the stars of the reality The Return of Superman, one of the most popular television programs, in which famous parents must spend 48 hours a week caring for their children without the help of their wives. The second, goalkeeper, still active, has won the trophy three times with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Kashima Antlers, the same as the most successful teams, Saudi Al-Hilal and South Korean FC Pohang Steelers.

The scorer Lee Dong-Gonk in a match with the South Korean team.
The scorer Lee Dong-Gonk in a match with the South Korean team. Getty

The first Israeli champions

The first edition of the tournament dates from 1967. It was called the Asian Club Championship and was played for four years. “It was a tournament with very few participants at the beginning. Soccer was in an almost embryonic state in almost all Asian countries, ”says Deuder. Japan, for example, professionalized football in the 1992/1993 season. The first four editions had finalists from a country whose clubs today belong to UEFA: Israel. Tel Aviv Hapoel was the first Asian club champion. “He only played one game in that tournament,” says Deuder. “He was exempt in the round of 16, in the quarterfinals and in the semifinals and he only played the final. They won it 2-1 against Selangor of Malaysia ”, he says.

The captain of Hapoel in Tel Aviv picks up the trophy from the Israeli Cup, in the early sixties.
The captain of Hapoel in Tel Aviv picks up the trophy from the Israeli Cup, in the early sixties. File

The second edition, in 1969, was won by Maccabi in Tel Aviv and already in the third, in 1970, the Iranian Taj, which is now Esteghlal, one of the greats of football in that country, was able to beat Hapoel. In the fourth cup, in 1971, Maccabi was crowned champion again, with an unusual detail: the final was not played. That was the last season for Israel and its clubs in the Asian Confederation.

The Thai Peasants’ Bank That Touched the Sky (Twice)

7,000 kilometers to the east, 25 years later, one of the most meteoric feats of football was forged. In 1994, the Thai Farmers Bank FC, a club that had been founded in 1987, during the boom of the Southeast Asian economy, took the Champions of that continent. He beat Oman Club in the final “in one of the finest finals under”That Deuder remembers. He would repeat the feat in 1995 against Qatari Al Arabi to become the first champion of the competition to defend the title. The goal in that final was scored by Netipong Sritong-In, one of the top gunners of the Thai team, who after hanging up his boots in 1997 became a professional golfer. Thai Farmers Bank FC disappeared in 2000 due to the great Asian financial crisis. In his five appearances in the Champions League he achieved two championships and a third position.

The encyclopedia of oriental football

Traveling through the largest tournament of all time

Dani Deuder now works in a security company, but in 2005, in Palencia, where he lived, he trained in the youth soccer categories of the International Friendship Club. A preseason that year changed his life. The team visited South Korea and played at Suwon FC in that city. “It was the first contact with that football. He was 22 years old. And I was surprised by the quality of the training infrastructure and how developed everything was, ”recalls Deuder. On his return, he began to follow the Korean league, the qualifying matches of the national teams for the World Cups, the Champions League …

Five years ago, Deuder, one of the most illustrated Asian football in Spain, created his website, Soccer from Asia, a must for those who want to get into the heart of this sport on that continent. He has not returned to Asia since 2005. He dreams of going to a match for the Japanese team or a derby in Tehran (between Persepolis and Esteghlal). The journey has continued through the screen, the Internet, and football. He has flown thanks to the ball from the Middle East to Australia and now he invites EL PAÍS on an ‘expedition’ through the best memories left by the Asian Champions League in all these years.

The golden christening of the Qatari captain

The only Qatari champion is Al Sadd, led by Xavi Hernández since 2019. The biggest club in that country lifted the continental cup in 1989 and 2011. The latter won it after having passed the quarter-finals thanks to an improper line-up from Iranian Sepahan. In the final, against Jeonbuk Motors, in South Korea, in a single match, he won through penalties. In the shoot-out, Hassan Al-Haiddos, 21, who is now the captain and one of the top scorers of the Qatari team that will play its first World Cup next year, kicked one of the penalties.

Hassan Al-Haiddos in a match wearing the Al-Sadd shirt.
Hassan Al-Haiddos in a match wearing the Al-Sadd shirt. Getty

The only Australian champion

No one could explain, as the phases of the 2013/2014 Asian Champions progressed, how Australian Western Sydney was still alive in the tournament. The first and only champion of Australia, whose clubs have participated in the competition since 2007, was knocking down giant after giant in that unforgettable season. “They started as favorable victims in the round of 16, in the quarterfinals, in the semifinals and in the final,” recalls Deuder. They beat Japanese Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Chinese galactic Guangzhou Evergrande, South Korean FC Seoul and Saudi Al-Hilal. “The return match [la ida había quedado 1-0 en Sidney] It’s one of the best finals I’ve ever seen, ”says Deuder. “Western Sydney locked in its area, two or three unspoken penalties …” An epic final that was played 17 hours by plane from Sydney and that put Australia on the books of the Asian Champions League.

Western Sydney players celebrate a win in 2014.
Western Sydney players celebrate a win in 2014. Getty

The Iranian derby, one of the biggest rivalries on the continent

In the first ten games with the highest fan attendance in the history of the Asian Champions League, one of two names appears: Persepolis FC or Esteghlal. Tehran’s two big clubs share the Azadi Stadium, which seats more than 80,000 spectators. Persepolis is the team that has won the most leagues in Iran, but does not have any Champions. He lost the 2018 and 2020 finals. His great rival is Esteghlal, who has already won two continental trophies and has an advantage in the history between the two. “The city completely paralyzes when they play against each other. The stadium fills up four or five hours before the start of the match. I would love to be able to experience that match in person, ”says Deuder.

Persepolis FC and Esteghlal have already done their homework and will play the round of 16 of the competition in September, alongside six other teams from the west of the continent that achieved qualification in April. Now it remains to be seen which eight teams from the East will accompany them in the decisive playoffs. They will be the eight clubs that pass the group stage that will be played between June 22 and July 11. 60 games in three weeks that can be followed live and exclusively through LaLigaSportsTV. The LaLiga OTT will also broadcast the outcome of the competition at the turn of the summer.

Image of a 2017 match between the two main teams of Tehran at the Azadi Stadium.
Image of a 2017 match between the two main teams of Tehran at the Azadi Stadium. Getty

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