2018 Suzuki Cup set for new format
New format targets heightened excitement, bigger crowds and more sponsorship
The Asean Football Federation (AFF) will implement changes to the format of its flagship tournament, the Suzuki Cup, in 2018.
The current eight-team tournament proper will be expanded to include 10 of 11 Asean nations, with the 10th and 11th-ranked team playing off for a spot in the main draw.
There will be two groups of five teams each, with each side playing two group games in their home country, and two away.
A draw will determine the exact fixtures.
This is a step away from the current system, where four of the lowest-ranked teams in the region battle to earn one spot in the tournament proper.
Currently, the opening stage of the competition is based in two countries, with each hosting a group of four.
The format of a two-leg, home-and-away semi-finals and final will remain.
The New Paper understands that a formal announcement will be made soon. The regional football fraternity believes there will be several benefits coming out of such a change.
"It makes a lot of sense from a revenue perspective. There will be more games played in front of home crowds, more football on television and that means more revenue - it makes sense," said R Sasikumar, managing director of sports marketing company, the Red Card Group.
He believes this will entice more sponsors, with regional Football Associations also profiting from having its national teams play more games at its home stadium.
"The Suzuki Cup is a cornerstone event for the region and, in that sense, any format is easy to accept. This isn't a groundbreaking change, it's an innovation to keep the product fresh," he said.
Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby believes the new format will help improve the standard of the minnows in the region.
"In every tournament, there will be big boys and minnows, and this year showed that the gap is closing," said Darby.
Traditional minnows like Cambodia earned plaudits for their performance in the group stage of this year's Suzuki Cup, which will see reigning champions Thailand take on Indonesia in the final (the first leg will be in Jakarta on Wednesday and the second in Bangkok on Saturday).
"How do the minnows get better? By playing games against Asean countries, not by playing (much higher-ranked sides) South Korea in the Fifa World Cup qualifiers," said Darby.
"The format change has great potential for the lower ranked teams to get playing exposure, and it is a chance for them to pay back their sponsors by being on television."
But Darby expects higher costs to be incurred by regional FAs because of more travelling involved. But he also spotted an opportunity in that.
"This change will see only one extra game and that doesn't extend the tournament too much, but the cost increase is in terms of travel expenses... There is a need for a flight sponsor with the new format," he said.
There seems a consensus that more home games for each participating country will mean more eyeballs and excitement in the new-look Suzuki Cup, and consequently increased sponsor interest.
But former Singapore international Sasi warned of the danger of making the regional tourney the be-all-and-end-all for South-east Asian nations.
"This cannot be our World Cup. Thailand has seen that it is important to look beyond our region if we want to improve our football," he said, pointing to Thailand's fourth-placed finish at the 2014 Asian Games.
Thailand are also the only team from Asean to qualify for the third round of the Fifa World Cup qualifiers for Asia.
Added Sasi: "Thailand use the Suzuki Cup as preparation rather than its final goal but, unfortunately, smaller teams, including Singapore, have not."