What does Asian Champions League mean to Aussie clubs?

Privately, and publicly, Western Sydney Wanderers believe the AFC Champions League is a big deal. That's encouraging.

Privately, and publicly, Western Sydney Wanderers believe the AFC Champions League is a big deal. That's encouraging.

Central Coast Mariners, by contrast, see it as a financial imposition, which is why owner Mike Charlesworth recently asked for assistance from the FFA. That's less encouraging, and doesn't exactly reek of ambition.

Melbourne Victory? Well, first they need to get past a play-off in Geelong on February 15, and then we'll see. But given their recent travails in the Hyundai A-League, and the fact defending Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande will be waiting if they make it through to the group phase, it's hard to be optimistic.

This is the Guangzhou side which is about to pay what Parma president Tomasso Ghirardi describes as a 'staggering' sum to lure young French winger Jonathan Diabiany to southern China - the same side coached by Marcello Lippi which swept through the ACL last year and, despite losing Dario Conca, looks to be at least as strong in 2014.

The 2014 edition of the ACL is about to kick-off in India, and it's as good a time as any to ponder where Australian clubs sit in the pecking order of Asian club football. Of course the ACL is not the only measurement, and in areas such as marketing, stadia, financial responsibility, coaching and media coverage, A-League clubs suffer little in comparison to even the so-called 'super' clubs of Asia.

But on the pitch, it's a different story. Do the mega sums some clubs in China, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, in particular, spend on their three non-Asian imports make a discernible difference? You bet. Should the fiscal gap effectively eliminate Australian clubs from serious contention? Not necessarily. Being smarter, not richer, remains our best alternative.

And yet it's a recurring disappointment that after seven years of ACL competition, A-League clubs still refuse to plan a recruiting strategy around performing well in Asia. On that register, getting the best possible players into the 3+1 spots is the key.

The fact that once again the Mariners and the Victory (if they make it) are - at the time of going to press - unlikely to fill their Asian designated spot this year underlines the oversight. In fact Australian clubs have used only four Asian-designated players (Surat Sukha, Song Jin-hyun, Mohamed Adnan and Hiro Moriyasu) over 12 previous ACL campaigns. That's either patronising, ignorant, unambitious or apathetic - or possibly a combination of all of the above.

And don't get me started on some of the non-Asian players who have been included in our ACL squad lists even after they have looked sub-standard in the A-League. While the rest of the continent - with a much smaller timeframe - scours the world for suitable imports ahead of the ACL, Australian clubs (with the luxury of a 12-month lead-in and the January transfer window) continue to base their recruiting decisions purely on the domestic season. Sadly, the ACL is given only cursory attention.

The big question, of course, is whether succeeding in the ACL really matters. Certainly while the competition remains a cost-burden, and is blighted by small crowds in many countries and poor ratings here in Australia, it's easy for A-League clubs to make what are, in effect, accounting decisions.

But I happen to believe it's worth trying to do well. Why? Because if we are to truly embrace our membership of the AFC, then we need to show we care. At every opportunity, and every level.

Truth is, in terms of what matters in the corridors of power in Kuala Lumpur, the ACL is only usurped by the World Cup qualifiers. Do well in the ACL, on a consistent basis, and a lot of doors will open. Which is why we've been letting ourselves down.

So hat's off to the Wanderers, who in a single decision have proved they get it. Refusing to release Shinji Ono until after the group stage tells me how seriously they're treating their debut ACL campaign. Tony Popovic's much-discussed rotation policy, and the decision to agree to the Victory's request to bring forward their round 19 fixture, are further evidence that the Wanderers have been planning for the ACL with foresight, enthusiasm, and commitment. About time.