AFC adopts Saudi recommendation to increase foreign player quota in Champions League

Asian Football Confederation said Friday it was adopting recommendations from the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to increase foreign players that teams could field in the AFC Champions League. (Courtesy AFC)

DUBAI: The Asian Football Confederation announced on Friday that it was adopting recommendations from the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to increase the number of foreign players that teams in the AFC Champions League can field.

It will also align the tournament’s schedule to match those of most domestic leagues in West Asia.

When the 2023 continental competition kicks off, all 40 entrants in the group stages and the play-offs, will be able to field a total of six foreign players, an increase of two from the current limit. The stipulation that one of the imports must be from a fellow Asian nation remains. This decision, the AFC said, is “aimed at strengthening the quality, competitiveness and stature of the AFC club competitions.”

While the move will be welcomed in Riyadh, it does not go quite as far as SAFF would have liked. The federation had wanted limits on foreign players to be increased but their ideal outcome was that the continental quota would reflect the limits in the continent’s respective domestic leagues. At the time of the proposal, eleven leagues around the continent allowed more imports for their domestic competition — including the Saudi Professional League, which allows seven foreign players.

In November, when the idea was raised, SAFF General Secretary Ibrahim Al-Kassim explained the reasoning behind the idea.

“The Saudi Football Association’s proposal to increase foreign players in the Asian Championship will ease contractual problems with players,” Al-Kassim said. The move would bring Asia into line with the major football confederations around the world. “Only the Asian Confederation and the Oceania Confederation set a limit for foreign players, and the top 20 international ranking teams allow their countries an open number of foreign players.”

In another major move, the AFC announced that the tournament, which was expanded to 40 teams in 2021, will change calendars and align Asia’s Champions League with its European counterpart. From 2023, it will run from autumn to spring instead of spring to autumn.

This decision, the AFC said, “...will enable Asia’s top clubs to benefit from more synchronized transfer windows, improved opportunities to sign quality players and coaches with respect to worldwide leagues’ seasons, and a more even distribution of club matches annually to maintain a balance with national team matches.”

Due to the challenges presented by the global pandemic, as well as the Qatar World Cup in November and December this year, the latter stages of the 2022 Champions League have been pushed back until early 2023, with the final taking place in February. The subsequent tournament is expected to kick off in September 2023.

This move will also align the Champions League with the Saudi Arabian league and others in the western zone of the tournament that is split into two geographic halves until the final. It will make it easier to manage squads and player contracts, though it will also mean that the final stages of the competition will take place at the same time as the climax of domestic campaigns.

In the preliminary round for the 2022 tournament Al-Taawoun take on Al-Jaish of Syria on March 15 for the right to enter Group D.

Title holders Al-Hilal start their defense in Group A in April against Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, Istiklol of Tajikistan and a yet-to-be-confirmed play-off winner. Al-Shabab are in Group B, along with Al-Jazira of the UAE, India’s Mumbai City and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq. King’s Cup winners Al-Faisaly will take on Qatari powerhouse Al-Sadd, Al-Wehdat of Jordan and another play-off entrant in Group E.

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