Successful end to 2020 means plenty more for Asian football

Ulsan Hyundai celebrated their AFC Champions League title in the league's bubble in Qatar. AP Photo/Hussein Sayed

Like every other sport, football in Asia was upended in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world.

But the successful conclusion of the AFC Champions League and the crowning of Ulsan Hyundai as the new champions this month points to an upbeat future next season.

- Star power lifts Ulsan to the AFC Champions League title

The year certainly started as planned. The AFC Champions League kicked off on February 10 but with the teams from China, the early epicentre of the virus, abstaining from action. Soon enough, however, Asian football came to a standstill and there were doubts that any play would resume this year.

The Asian Football Confederation was cautious in its approach -- postponing fixtures a couple of months at time -- but it was always determined to resume action when it was safe resume.

There were cancellations along the way. The AFC Cup, the continent's second-tier club competition, was scrapped while the joint-qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup were shifted to next year.

As the situation stabilised in some countries, the AFC decided to restart play at a centralised venue with Qatar getting the nod as the host of the West Zone matches.

There were hurdles along the way, especially when defending champions Al Hilal had to withdraw ahead of the final round of group-stage fixtures after a host of players tested positive for COVID-19.

While it certainly ignited its fair share of debate, the AFC deserves credit for making swift and decisive action to effectively disqualify Al Hilal from competing any further.

Qatar's success in hosting the West Zone saw them get the nod again when play resumed in the East Zone. After a lengthy delay, 2020 ultimately delivered the annual club champions of Asia in South Korean outfit Ulsan, who defeated Iran's Persepolis 2-1 in the final.

It may have been an abridged format of the tournament, with knockout round ties being competed via a single match instead of the usual two-legged home-and-away format. Plenty of observers lauded the fact that the competition had a real feel of a major tournament with sudden-death ties being contested in a centralised location.

As the dust settles, not only on the recently-concluded AFC Champions League campaign but also the long-term impact coronavirus has had on the sporting world, a new season is already beckoning.

One that will not only crown new club champions of Asia, but also afford less-established teams a chance for glory in the AFC Cup. National teams will look to edge closer to World Cup and Asian Cup qualification.

Football in Asia is set to resume strong in 2021 and that is reason to be excited for what next year brings.