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Eastern fans’ bizarre absence from Guangzhou threatens Asian Champions League integrity

Eastern’s Asian Champions League debut against Guangzhou Evergrande was memorable for many reasons, but the most important one is in danger of being forgotten – the lack of any visiting supporters. It’s an issue which may not look significant to some, but in actual fact it has potentially serious repercussions for Asian football.

The stage was set earlier this week for a really positive news night for the Asian Champions League (ACL) and Greater China football – a club led by a female head coach for the first time ever in a major continental competition, and also a first in the shape of a Hong Kong side playing in the ACL. But a rather unsavory event two days before kickoff still looms over the match.

Eagerly awaiting their side’s ACL debut in what was a local derby, some 188 Eastern fans paid for tickets in advance to attend the clash in Guangzhou. But suddenly, the club announced it was unable to provide their fans with the actual briefs. Incredibly, Eastern declined to elaborate on the actual reason for this, telling ESPN only that “internal problems” were to blame.

Unsurprisingly, speculation mounted that politics might have something to do with Eastern’s sudden problem. Mainland media reported that away fans had been forbidden due to security issues – such are the tensions between Hong Kong and China these days. But Eastern’s statement said the problem was of their own doing and said it was wrong to blame Guangzhou Evergrande or the government in any way. The ACL’s rules state that 5% of stadium capacity must be allotted to away fans. But the AFC said Evergrande had fulfilled their obligations by providing the tickets to Eastern.

Eastern’s refusal to explain what the issue actually was is completely unacceptable at this level of football and frankly it is shameful that the AFC has appeared to have taken their statement at face value. The “internal issues” happened two days before the match – was it really not possible to rectify the matter before the game? How hard can it be to give 188 people tickets for a football match? Instead of trying to resolve whatever the problem was two days before the game so that the fans might get to see their team after all, Eastern compensated its fans with an incredible HKD 3,000 each when the tickets only cost HKD 170, making it look like hush money. Where exactly did this money come from? Eastern is a club which almost didn’t take part in the ACL because it didn’t think it could afford to do so. Social media speculated that Eastern, owned by a Guangzhou-based property developer, had been pressured through business connections in the city to take responsibility for not letting their fans get to the game so that Evergrande would not be culpable and escape any possible AFC censure.

Not that the footballing authorities would necessarily censure a Chinese team anyway. FIFA has turned a blind eye to government interference in Chinese football since year dot. Just a few weeks ago a blatant example of government interference – changing foreign player quota right slap bang in the middle of a transfer window – went ignored by FIFA. The AFC has a better record in this regard, punishing Evergrande for AFC sponsorship infringements during the 2015 ACL final, but the USD 160,000 fine was an absolutely trifling sum for Asia’s richest club.

Frankly speaking, few people don’t believe that fear of possible political protest was the real reason for Eastern fans’ absence from Tianhe Stadium on Wednesday. It is hard to understand why the authorities are so afraid, considering that the Hong Kong national team played China in Shenzhen in 2015 without incident.  But since Eastern won’t tell anyone what their “issue” was, the plausible explanation left is politics.

Regardless of the real issue, the AFC has let the fans down, and tarnished the Asian Champions League’s reputation, by accepting Eastern’s “explanation”. How does Eastern expect anyone to believe them if they don’t tell anyone what the actual problem was? They are asking us to take them at their word that it was not Evergrande’s fault. The same applies to the AFC – how can we be sure there was no breach of the rules, or government interference if we don’t know why the tickets didn’t reach the fans?

If the AFC know the reason why Eastern didn’t give their own fans the tickets, they should reveal it in the interests of transparency and avoiding suspicion and rumour. If they don’t, then they are at best not doing their job properly and at worst turning a blind eye to a clear breach of the rules.

Football governance needs to be transparent and rules applied equally across the board for it to be effective. It is one thing if China has some internal issues that affect how it polices it’s supporters at games only involving Chinese clubs – that is a matter for the Chinese authorities. But it’s another when fans from a team from another association are involved, and when playing in an international competition which must apply the same rules to all teams from all countries involved. It is dangerous to allow such glaring apparent rule breaches to go unexplained – it gives a clear green light to only clubs, but other power-brokers all over the continent to interfere in the normal course of a football competition to suit their own interests.

The ACL has made great strides towards being something worth winning in recent years and has long been supported by WEF. But Adding insult to injury in this case was the appearance in the away end of a crowd of people very obviously not from Hong Kong, nor genuine Eastern fans and likely Guangzhou-based employees of Eastern’s parent company, paid to be at the match. Is this the spectacle the AFC wants the world to see instead of allowing genuine passionate fans who, had actually paid to get in, watch their heroes in the ACL for the first time? This affair will leave a sour taste in mouths of many for quite some time.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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