AFC Champs League expansion brings hope to more Southeast Asia sides in 2021

Football in Southeast Asia, like so much other sport in the world, was brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic in early March.

Some play resumed months later in countries where the virus was under better control, albeit with little or no fans in the stands. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam were among the countries that were able to wrap up their domestic leagues later in the year.

But, some like Brunei Darussalam and Timor-Leste have had their 2020 league campaigns wiped out. Severely-hit Indonesia, that boasts the biggest fan base in the region, has yet to see its top division return after its suspension more than nine months ago.

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Thai League 1 shifted its schedule with the 2020 season now concluding in May 2021. Future domestic campaigns will now run from July to April to match the time frame of major leagues in Europe.

A majority of the cup competitions in Southeast Asia were cancelled by national federations due to an already-packed schedule. The 2020 AFC Cup, which had 12 ASEAN clubs in its group stages, was scrapped dealing a big blow to those sides and their supporters.

Here's a look at how some of the major leagues fared this fall and what's to come next year.

JDT dominated again in Malaysia while Hanoi slipped in V.League 1

There was no stopping Johor Darul Ta'zim FC as the Southern Tigers claimed their seventh successive league title in Malaysia by winning a shortened season. In doing so they became the most successful club in the country since Liga Malaysia was introduced in 1982.

Soon after claiming the Super League title, however, the Malaysian government delivered a huge setback for the Johor outfit when it barred the club from traveling to Qatar for the AFC Champions League restart. JDT will now have to wait until next season to compete in the continental competition.

Hanoi FC, barred from competing in Asia in 2020 after failing to meet AFC's licensing criteria, suffered even more disappointment in Vietnam's V.League 1. They lost the title to Viettel FC, who will now represent the country in the Champions League next season as Hanoi settled for a place in the 2021 AFC Cup.

United City FC, formerly Ceres-Negros FC, will become the first Filipino side to play in the group stages of Champions League after winning the 2020 Philippines Football League. Albirex Niigata FC (S) emerged champions of Singapore, but it will be Tampines Rovers who will represent the country in ACL 2021.

Shan United successfully completed a title defence in Myanmar while Boeung Ket Angkor FC returned to the summit in Cambodia for the first time since 2017. Newcomers BG Pathum United, along with Port FC, will get group stage entry in the Champions League from Thailand, as the top two in Thai League at the halfway point.

New year, new beginnings for ASEAN football

Though it was a year to forget for most of the clubs in Southeast Asia, 2021 promises to be a better chapter for ASEAN football. More clubs than ever from the region will compete in the two AFC continental competitions next season.

Southeast Asia, for all its vibrant fan culture and rich football history, has had just clubs from Malaysia and Thailand competing in the AFC Champions League proper for the past few years. But that is all going to change with the ACL expanding from 32 to 40 teams in 2021.

In ACL 2021, six ASEAN clubs -- two from Thailand and one each from Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore -- have been guaranteed a place in the group stages while another four -- two from Thailand and one each from the Philippines and Myanmar -- will be slotted into the preliminary stages.

The 2021 AFC Cup will have 10 Southeast Asian sides in group stages and a further six, including those from Timor-Leste, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, vying for berths in the mains from the qualification rounds.

Not only will the addition of these clubs into Asia's top-tier continental competition bring the electrifying atmosphere of Southeast Asia's football stadiums to a wider audience in the future, but it should also act as an impetus for clubs in Singapore, Vietnam and Philippines to improve their quality as they look to test themselves against Asia's top sides.

The second round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup Joint-Qualifiers is expected to resume in March, while the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup, the region's much-coveted silverware, will be up for grabs for the nine participating nations later in 2021.