As AFC Cup returns to ASEAN for first time since the pandemic, here's why it matters to Southeast Asian aspirants

Now regular features in the AFC Champions League, Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim remain the first and only Southeast Asian team to have won Asian club football's second-tier AFC Cup following their 2015 triumph. Asian Football Confederation

For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, AFC Cup football will return to Southeast Asia on Friday.

After the tournament was called off completely in 2020, last year's edition saw the ASEAN Zone action cancelled due to ongoing difficulties in hosting matches in the region -- leaving the competition to be contested by the West, South, East and Central zones.

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But with football, and life, slowly but surely returning to some form of pre-pandemic normalcy, Southeast Asian teams will once again grace the AFC Cup with the start of the ASEAN Zone group stage action this Friday.

Of course, clubs from the region have not been completely left out of continental action in the past two years.

A whole host of teams have been involved in the AFC Champions League -- the continent's premier club competition - with both Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim and Thailand's BG Pathum United advancing to this year's Round of 16, while representatives from Singapore, Vietnam and Philippines have also been involved.

It may not be immediately apparent why the second-tier AFC Cup matters so much, but for many years to, it has proven to be a crucial stepping stone to bigger and better things for a region still a few levels shy of consistently matching it with the giants from Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar.

When JDT achieved the milestone of qualifying for the ACL knockout stage for the first time just weeks ago, they did so finishing top of a group also boasting two-time winners Ulsan Hyundai and the reigning J1 League champions Kawasaki Frontale.

Yet, it was not too long ago -- 2015 to be exact -- that the Southern Tigers were still at the early stages of their ascent in Asia when they won the AFC Cup, becoming the first Southeast Asian club to achieve the feat.

That triumph not only proved they had to potential to compete at the continental stage, but also provided an ambitious team with added motivation to strive for greater heights.

Similarly, it was only five years ago when Singapore's now-defunct Home United were crowned ASEAN Zone champions of the AFC Cup.

From the ashes of that team rose the Lion City Sailors, who gave a decent account of themselves in their ACL debut earlier this year including claiming a 3-0 win over Daegu FC of South Korea, even if ultimately fell short in advancing out of the group stage.

While the ACL ultimately remains the promised land, the AFC Cup continues to serve a valuable battleground for fledgling teams to test their mettle.

This year, 11 Southeast Asian sides will get the opportunity to do just that.

Some like Indonesian duo Bali United and PSM Makassar are seasoned campaigners at this level and should be looking make a step up. Others like Malaysia Cup winners Kuala Lumpur City are preparing for their maiden foray.

Then, there are even teams like Tampines Rovers of the Singapore Premier League and Vietnam's Viettel, who just last season were on the receiving end of some chastening losses in the ACL and could benefit from continental competition but at a lower level for now.

It most certainly is not the AFC Champions League, but the AFC Cup still matters plenty in Southeast Asian football.

Which is why there is plenty to look forward to as the competition returns to the ASEAN Zone after a two-year hiatus.