Less than 45 days remain for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup to get underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the 24 qualified teams enter the last phase of preparations for the tournament.
India, who have qualified for the continental showpiece for the first time since 2011, have been drawn in a tough Group A alongside hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain.
Much of a national team’s strength is directly correlated to the football league structure in place in the respective country. India currently have two top-flight leagues in operation in form of the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL).
Here, Goal takes a look at the professional league structure in place for India’s three Group A opponents.
LEAGUE – UAE ARABIAN GULF LEAGUE (AGL)
Started in 1973 as the UAE Football League, it was renamed as the UAE Pro League in 2007 before being finally rechristened as the Arabian Gulf League starting from the 2013-14 season.
Until 2012, the League functioned on a three-tier structure with promotion and relegations but that has now been reduced to just two tiers – the Arabian Gulf League and the UAE First Division League.
As of now, 14 teams take part in the top-tier Arabian Gulf League while 10 teams participate in the First Division League.
Last season, three teams from the top division dropped down to the First Division while one team was promoted from the second-tier.
The league has functioned every single year since its inception in 1973 bar one season in 1990-91 due to the Gulf War. Historically, Al-Ain have been the most successful team in the top division with 13 titles and seven runners-up finishes to their name while the Dubai based Al-Wasl and Al-Ahli are the joint second-most successful teams with seven championship wins each.
In the AFC Club Competitions Rankings which were introduced in 2014, the UAE League ranks in the fourth position (India’s is ranked at 14th spot) currently. They were ranked as high as No.1 in 2017 though. The rankings are calculated on the basis on the results of teams in the league participating in the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup as well as the official FIFA ranking of the member country.
The Arabian Gulf League season usually runs from September until the end of March with each team playing the remaining opponents on a home and away basis.
Currently, the top two finishers in the Arabian Gulf League qualify for the group stages of the AFC Champions League while the third team is assured of an AFC Champions League play-off berth.
LEAGUE – THAI LEAGUE
The Thai League is Thailand’s professional football structure and run by the Football Association of Thailand.
Between 1916 to 1995, club football in Thailand was centred around the historic Kor Royal Cup. A professional league structure was first introduced in 1996 by the Thai FA with the competition initially called as the Thailand Soccer League. Most of the participants in the Thailand Soccer League were clubs formed by government-related organisations based in the Bangkok area while the rest of the clubs competed in the Provincial League.
In 2007, the two leagues were integrated into one common platform named as the Thailand Premier League which was eventually renamed as the Thai League 1 in 2017.
The Thai League now runs on a five-tier structure – League 1, League 2, League 3, League 4 and a Thailand Amateur League with a system of promotions and relegations being followed.
The league generally runs from February until October every year with each team playing the other opponents home and away.
In the most recent Thai League (2018) season, a total of 18 teams participated in the top division while 15 teams took part in the second division. Three teams from League 2 were promoted to League 1 while as many as five teams were relegated from the top division.
Historically, Buriram United have been the most successful team in the top division with seven titles to their credit including unbeaten runs in 2013 and 2015.
In the AFC Club Competitions Rankings, the Thai League is currently ranked in the eighth spot, up two places from their 2017 ranking.
Currently, the winners of the Thai League 1 are assured of an entry to the AFC Champions League group stage while the runners-up advance to the Preliminary round 2 of the continental competition.
The winners of the Thai FA Cup are also given an entry to the AFC Champions League Preliminary round 2.
LEAGUE – BAHRAINI PREMIER LEAGUE
A professional football league has been in place in Bahrain since 1957 with periodic amendments being made to it along the way.
It is now divided into a two-tier structure with the top division being named as the Bahraini Premier League. In 2002, several teams were amalgamated together leading to a big restructuring of the league.
The league structure functions on a promotion and relegation basis. In the last edition of the Bahraini Premier League, 10 teams participated in the top division with the bottom-placed side being relegated to the second division. The team finishing second from bottom enters into a relegation/promotion playoff with the second-best team from the second division.
Currently, there are nine teams participating in the second tier of the Bahraini Premier League.
Although all teams in the league play their opponents twice over the course of the season on a home and away basis, most of the matches are held in the National Stadium of the Bahraini capital city Manama. The league span is relatively short too and usually runs from September until December.
Defending champions Al-Muharraq SC are historically the most successful team in the league with 34 top-flight title wins to their name.
The Bahraini Premier League is currently ranked 21st in the AFC Club Competitions Rankings, down one spot from their ranking in 2017.
As of now, the winners of the top-division are given an entry into the AFC Cup group stages.