Brisbane Roar officials must have been rubbing their hands with glee when FC Tokyo lifted the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day at a packed National Stadium in the Japanese capital.
After all, “the Gasmen” had just booked a place in the group stage of the AFC Champions League and a March 6 showdown at Suncorp Stadium with Ange Postecoglou’s all-conquering Roar.
It was a dream result for the Roar, not least because they avoided having to travel to Nishikyogoku Stadium – home of beaten Emperor’s Cup finalists Kyoto Sanga and one of the most hopelessly outdated venues in Asia.
Instead the Roar will travel to the cavernous Ajinomoto Stadium on the western outskirts of Tokyo, where they will play one of the genuine up-and-coming Asian sides.
It’s true FC Tokyo spent 2011 in the second tier but the gap between the first and second division in Japan is closer than one might think.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Cerezo Osaka both qualified for the ACL just a year after promotion, before Kashiwa Reysol went one better and lifted the J1 title in 2011 just a season after winning J2.
FC Tokyo will hope for similarly impressive results but first they will have to negotiate the trip to Queensland, where Australia’s best team awaits.
And the clash between a vibrant Roar and an FC Tokyo side brimming with talent should be a positive affirmation of all that’s good about the ACL.
How the two Matts – Smith and Jurman – cope with FC Tokyo’s strike force of veteran Lucas Severino and the towering Sota Hirayama will be fascinating to watch.
Will Thomas Broich get the better of the bruising Masato Morishige? Or will we see tricky Tokyo winger Naohiro Ishikawa unleash one of his trademark long-range specials?
The build-up to the game is intriguing and as the game draws near, hopefully it’s one Hyundai A-League fans begin to appreciate.
No sooner had FC Tokyo lifted the Emperor’s Cup than a prominent football journalist rang me to say how much he was looking forward to the game in Brisbane.
The interest in the ACL is there – at least within sections of the Australian media – but it will take some time yet for A-League fans to become familiar with Asian clubs.
Hopefully this season’s group stage helps speed up the process because Australia’s three representatives have drawn some tasty opponents.
FC Tokyo, Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka are three of the biggest names in Japanese football but the likes of Uzbek giants Bunyodkor, Chinese side Beijing Guoan and 2010 ACL winners Seongnam Ilhwa from South Korea are nothing to sniff at either.
And with genuine stars like Gamba playmaker Yasuhito Endo, Ulsan Hyundai goal-sneak Lee Keun-Ho, legendary Tianjin Teda defender Li Weifeng and Nagoya’s dead-ball specialist Jungo Fujimoto all set to grace us with their presence – not to mention Socceroos stars Josh Kennedy and Sasa Ognenovski – A-League fans have every reason to be excited by the ACL.
That’s especially the case now that a team like the Roar has a genuine chance of progressing beyond the group stage.
Doing so would add to the A-League’s credibility on the continent and maybe even help entice some more Asian talent to our shores – if not for the salary, then at least for the enviable lifestyle on offer.
I can think of several Asian players who would help lift the standard of the A-League and several of them will be on show in the 2012 ACL.
Hopefully Adelaide United, Roar and Mariners fans have booked some trips away because watching your team play in a foreign country is an exhilarating experience.
And hopefully they’ll make some new friends along the way because if past campaigns have taught us anything, Asia and the ACL is always a fun place to be.