Explained: Asia’s new $23m Champions League format as Mariners, Sydney FC chase big payday

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has revamped its two premier continental club competitions, with the AFC Champions League/AFC Cup model making way for a two-tiered Champions League format in 2024-25.

One Isuzu UTE A-League club is set to compete in each of the inaugural editions of the two new tournaments: Central Coast Mariners are reigning A-League Men Premiers, and will take part in the AFC Champions League Elite. Sydney FC are Australia Cup holders and have earned a spot in the AFC Champions League Two.

Here’s everything you need to know about the AFC Champions League Elite and AFC Champions League Two ahead of the inaugural edition of each tournament.

For all the latest transfer news involving your Isuzu UTE A-League club, make sure to stay across our dedicated Transfer Centre

ACL Elite: Mariners pursue $18m AUD payday

The financial incentives are significant as Central Coast Mariners prepare to take part in the first edition of the AFC Champions League Elite – Asia’s most illustrious continental club competition.

On June 19, the Mariners were confirmed as one of 22 clubs across Asia to have directly qualified for the group stage of the ACL Elite.

Australia has one confirmed allocation in the tournament and it goes to the reigning Premiers; in 2023-24, the Mariners finished top of the table at the end of the season and progressed directly to the ACL Elite group stage.

For that feat alone, the Mariners are set to earn a guaranteed minimum of USD $800,000 (approximately AUD $1.2 million).

The further the Mariners progress in the tournament, the grander the financial rewards become. Should the Gosford side manage to win the ACL Elite, their prize money would exceed USD $12 million – approximately AUD $18 million.

The breakdown of the ACL Elite Champion’s prize money is:

  • Qualification for the tournament: USD $800,000
  • Qualification for Round of 16: USD $200,000
  • Qualification for Quarter-Finals: USD $400,000
  • Qualification for Semi-Finals: USD $600,000
  • Champion: USD $10 million
Image: AFC.

The ACL Elite features 24 clubs from around the AFC – 12 from the West region, and 12 from the East region. The Mariners come from the East region of the confederation.

There are still three group stage spots up for grabs; five clubs will battle for those final two spots in the Preliminary Stage from August 6-13 before the beginning of a league format, which has replaced the typical group stage format.

The league format

The 24 teams are split into two “leagues” – East and West – and the 12 teams in each league play against eight opponents from their league (four home and four away).

The eight league stage games take place between September 2024 and February 2025.

The official draw for the league stage will take place on August 16.

What comes next?

The top eight teams from each 12-team league will advance to the Round of 16. In this phase, each remaining club will face another club from its region – East or West – in a two-legged, home-and-away tie to decide which eight clubs progress to a centralised “Finals” campaign.

Image: AFC.

The Finals

With eight teams remaining, the ACL Elite concludes with a Finals campaign which will run from April 25 to May 4 in a centralised location; for the first two seasons of the ACL Elite, Saudi Arabia has been confirmed as the Finals host.

The Quarter-Finals Semi-Finals and Final will all feature cross-regional pairings and will consist entirely of single-legged ties.

For all the latest transfer news involving your Isuzu UTE A-League club, make sure to stay across our dedicated Transfer Centre

Image: AFC.

Who are the Mariners up against?

Five clubs will play qualifiers with the final two spots in the group stage on the line.

In the West, Al-Gharafa will play the winner of the tie between the representative club from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Shabab Al-Ahli. In the East, Shandong Taishan will take on Bangkok United.

ACL Two: Sky Blues in 32-team tournament to replace AFC Cup

Sydney FC are reigning Australia Cup Champions – and their triumph over Brisbane Roar in the 2024 Final has earned the Isuzu UTE A-League club a spot in the ACL Two in 2024-25.

The ACL Two features a 32-team group stage – and unlike the ACL Elite, it’s a traditional round-robin, not a league format, that will decide which teams progress to the Round of 16.

The round-robin group stage

Sydney FC lifting the 2023 Australia Cup after defeating Brisbane Roar in the Final.

Sydney FC will be placed in one of eight four-team groups.

The group stage will take place between September 17 and December 5, with each club facing three group opponents both home and away.

The top-two finishers in each group will progress to the Round of 16. The draw for the group stage will take place on August 16.

The Knockouts

Set for mid-February, 2025, the Round of 16 will feature two-legged ties and the pairings will be determined via a knockout draw; all eight group winners will face off against one of the eight runners-up in the Round of 16.

Unlike the ACL Elite, the ACL Two will continue with home-and-away knockout ties for the Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals before a single-leg Final, set to take place on May 17. The winner of the ACL Two will earn an indirect slot in the ACL Elite for 2025-26.

The prize money

Should Sydney FC replicate the Mariners’ 2024 triumph in AFC’s second-tier club competition, the Sky Blues would secure a substantial payday.

For reaching the group stage alone, Sydney have earned USD $300,000 – roughly AUD $450,000. If Ufuk Talay’s side goes all the way and wins the final, as champions they would receive at least USD $3.28 million – approximately $4.92 million.

Image: AFC.

Who are Sydney FC up against?

AFC Champions League Elite qualifying round loserAFC Champions League qualifying round loser
AFC Champions League Elite qualifying round loserSanfrecce Hiroshima
Al-TaawounJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
SharjahSydney FC
2023-24 Iraq FA Cup winners2023-24 V.League 1 champions
Al-Hussein Irbid2023-24 Vietnamese Cup winners
2023-24 Jordan FA Cup winnersLee Man
Ravshan Kulob2024 Philippines Football League champions
Mohun Bagan SGKaya-Iloilo
Al-KhaldiyaLion City Sailors
Tampines Rovers

Four clubs will play qualifiers to earn a spot: East Bengal will take on Altyn Asyr, while Al-Ahli, face Al-Kuwait.