Ulsan Hyundai reasserted East Asian dominance with victory in the Asian Champions League final but, as the trophy was packed up for the journey to South Korea, it was Qatar who emerged as the major winners of the heavily disrupted competition.
Ulsan’s 2-1 win over Iran’s Persepolis in Doha on Saturday marked the 12th time a K-League team had been crowned Asian champions, and the eighth in the last nine years from the eastern half of the confederation to secure the title.
Al Hilal’s win last year interrupted East Asia’s dominance and the Saudi Arabian side also threatened to dictate the narrative of the 2020 edition, though this time because of their early exit.
The nature of their elimination reflected the difficulties faced by organisers determined to conclude the competition when it reconvened in Doha in September after a six-month suspension caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Qatari capital had set itself up as a bio-secure venue to host games involving teams from the west of the continent but a rash of infections within the Al Hilal squad saw the Saudis effectively kicked out of the tournament.
Players and officials had celebrated their domestic league title win on the eve of their departure and, as a result, infections steadily picked off players until Al Hilal were no longer able to field a team for their final group game.
The negative headlines generated by the loss of one of Asia’s most successful clubs could have derailed the competition but, after finetuning already stringent protocols, games continued with minimal further disruption.
“It was unique in the world,” Dr. Abdul Wahab Al Musleh, the adviser to the minister of public health of Qatar on sports affairs, told Reuters about the set-up. “I don’t think there had been a similar experience by anybody in the world before we did it in Qatar, so it was definitely a learning curve for us. We learnt so many lessons.”
‘KEPT ASIAN FOOTBALL ALIVE’
Those experiences carried into the hosting of the eastern side of the competition in November and December, dates which closely matched those when Qatar will host the World Cup finals in two years’ time.
As a result, the Gulf state was given the opportunity to showcase its much-vaunted stadium cooling systems, which maintain conditions inside venues at levels conducive to high-performance sport.
“We hadn’t experienced this cooling system before,” said Shanghai SIPG defender Yu Rui. “I think as players we consume less energy and we sweat less, which can make our body react better during the game and keep us in a condition to play all the time.”
In a year when many of its tournaments were cancelled, the Asian Football Confederation needed to ensure its premier club competition was completed to limit potentially damaging compensation claims from broadcasters and commercial partners.
With international travel all-but impossible, Qatar hosted the tournament centrally, and matches in the knockout rounds were played as one-off affairs instead of the usual two-legged ties.
This year’s final was the first since 2012 – when Ulsan also won the title – to be played as a standalone game. “Facilities here are exceptional,” Persepolis head coach Yahya Golmohammadi told Iranian state television ahead of Saturday’s decider.
“I firmly believe that had it not been for the Qatari football family, this tournament would have been suspended and not resumed, as there was no other country that would have organised these matches. In my opinion, Qataris kept Asian football alive and we, across the whole continent, should be extremely grateful to them.”