After weeks of confusion surrounding the venue for the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second tier club competition, Kuala Lumpur plays host to the summit clash on Monday. Initially scheduled to be held on November 2 in Pyongyang, capital of one of the world’s most secretive states – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) moved the final to Shanghai last month, before again shifting it to the Kuala Lumpur Stadium, a 20-minute drive from its headquarters in Bukit Jalil.
The AFC said it was ‘compelled’ to move the final from Pyongyang due to ‘challenges affecting the commercial, broadcasting, media, accessibility and logistical arrangements’.
These ‘challenges’ were visible when North Korea hosted South Korea in a World Cup qualifier last month. The game was played in front of empty stands and blacked out to the rest of the world.
Like in previous international games in Pyongyang, it meant no live broadcast and no visiting fans. Clearly, there were too many downsides to keeping Pyongyang as AFC Cup final hosts. The Asian football governing body didn’t explain reasons behind its second venue change, from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur, but its overall handling of the situation has already seen it draw sharp criticism from various quarters.
Fair to say, the build-up to the final of Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League has been far from ideal. Nevertheless, Monday’s final will be of some interest to fans across the globe for reasons beyond just football.
It has to do with the two finalists of the competition, North Korea’s April 25 and and Lebanon’s Al-Ahed. April 25, North Korea’s most successful club with 19 league titles since 1985, are a multi-sport club operated by the country’s Army. All athletes representing the club are also considered serving officers of the Army, according to reports.
Having regularly featured in the AFC Cup in recent years – the club lost the inter-zone play-off final last year to Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asir and the inter-zone play-off semi-final to India’s Bengaluru FC in 2017—April 25 are playing their first ever final on Monday. Winning a major continental trophy will come as a major boost to the club as well as to North Korea’s ruling regime.
On the other hand, April 25’s final opponents, Al-Ahed, are also backed by a powerful, controversial force. For many middle-east observers, the name ‘Al-Ahed’ will ring a bell or two – it is the name of the print media outlet run by Lebanon-based Shia militant outfit Hezbollah. While Al-Ahed FC are not officially funded by Hezbollah, the relationship between the club and the group isn’t a secret. Over the years, senior officials of the club, whose supporters are largely Shiites living in Beirut and who sport the same colour as Hezbollah – yellow, have been directly associated with the group.
This isn’t unusual in a country where politics and sectarianism are significantly intertwined with football.
For instance, the family of Saad Hariri, who resigned as Prime Minister of Lebanon last week amid country-wide protests, has funded, over different periods, Al-Ansar, Nejmeh, Racing Beirut and Safa. While Nejmeh boast of a multi-sectarian fan base, Al-Ansar have a Sunni support base; Racing Beirut’s fans are largely Christian and those of Safa come from the minority Druze community.
In his UN speech last year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of hiding missiles at Al-Ahed’s home stadium.
Lebanese authorities fired back by taking journalists and diplomats on a tour to the stadium. While Netanyahu’s claims couldn’t be substantiated, Al-Ahed’s links with Hezbollah, listed as a terror group by the US and the European Union, are evident.
So when April 25 and Al-Ahed take to the field in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, it will be more than just two ordinary football clubs vying for a continental title.