The collapse of Ceres-Negros, the most successful and well-supported team in the Philippines, is a direct result of the economic impact of COVID-19.
They have company, as clubs across the confederation collapse, including 11 in China alone. Yet the pain and uncertainty created by the pandemic may be exactly what football in much of Asia desperately needs.
For years the AFC has relentlessly pursued a strategy centred upon club structures. Licensing for AFC competitions has hinged upon football clubs meeting tightly defined benchmarks, from the minimum number of underage teams through to the quality of stadiums.
These requirements have in turn been promoted and at times enforced by national federations.
This approach saw an immediate lift in the standard of the game but has also left adrift those pursuing alternative approaches to the AFC model. Clubs that are part of a holistic provincial football structure, with local clubs developing youth and the professional club acting as a ‘finishing school’, have been forced to undermine their own provincial structures in order to attain an AFC licence.
This is an issue faced even in Australia. Adelaide United, a club whose reliance upon SANPL club youth development resulted in a swathe of promising talent, can only attain an AFC license by undermining that very same development structure with the introduction of underage teams.
The focus on structural aspects meant clubs with easier access to capital were better able to meet licensing requirements. In Asia, this has seen the favouring of clubs with single wealthy owners over those who pursue a more diverse corporate governance strategy.
This reliance upon wealthy owners resulted in a raft of governance issues. Most owners have a high level of passion but constantly involve themselves in the management of the squad, undermining coaching staff and on-field leaders. Many have uncertain cash flows, resulting in delayed payments, ad hoc approaches to development and limited long-term planning.
Clubs that rely heavily on single owners have less incentive to engage the fan-base and broader community to enhance revenues and generate enthusiasm for the local product. This created a gap in local talent identification and development.
The single-owner corporate model that delivered the rapid rise of football across second and third-tier footballing nations has become the very reason for stagnation in these very same countries.
The AFC has an opportunity to address this issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented strain upon economies across the entire confederation. Owners are far more amenable to improving club internal governance, diversifying revenue bases and reaching out to the community.
A change in focus of AFC licences away from formulaic club structures and towards corporate governance approaches would help break the governance glass ceiling that has held back far too many national leagues. It would allow clubs to better adapt their structure to each club’s unique environment, improving the efficacy of development while improving club sustainability.
COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges for Asian football. It also presents an unprecedented opportunity. The AFC need to take it.