<
>

Asian football is gearing up for a 2021 return but when does the action kick off?

play
AFC Champions League returns to centralized format (1:38)

ESPN Asia reporter Gabriel Tan reports on the latest surrounding the AFC Champions League. (1:38)

The turn of 2021 means many nations across Asia are prepping up towards the start of a new football season.

A majority of the leagues in East Asia are set to commence in the coming months, but there are a couple of exceptions with Thailand midway through an adjusted 2020-21 season, while Vietnam already began a new campaign in January.

Like the rest of the world, the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic continues to loom large over league and cup competitions in Asia, but there is hope that the new season will have fewer interruptions with plenty of lessons learnt throughout a difficult 2020.

Here's a look at some of the biggest leagues in Asia as a new campaign beckons.

SINGAPORE

Football in Singapore is expected to return on Feb. 20 with the Community Shield between defending Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) and runners-up Tampines Rovers serving as the curtain raiser. However, disruptions due to the pandemic could spill over to the new season which kicks off just over two months after the conclusion of the 2020 campaign.

The 2019 champions, Brunei DPMM FC, missed out on a chance to defend their title due to travel restrictions and this time, it is Albirex who are struggling to get their squad ready for the start of the campaign.

With a majority of their players having to go into a 14-day quarantine upon arrival from Japan, the satellite team could have just a week of full-fledged preseason before the opener. There is a strong possibility they will withdraw from the Community Shield and be replaced by Lion City Sailors.

PHILIPPINES

The Philippines Football Federation canceled the Copa Paulino Alcantara in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the cup competition -- named as a tribute to a Filipino-born Barcelona legend -- will now serve to kickstart the the new season in April.

The 2021 Philippines Football League is expected to start later in June. Whether the league will continue to be held inside a bubble, like last season, is yet to be known, but league organisers have confirmed that they are looking to expand the six-team competition this year.

THAILAND

The 2020-21 Thai League 1 season continues to be in session after extending its running time until April 2021 following the suspension of matches in March last year due to COVID-19. However, the league suffered a setback at the start of the new year when the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country forced another postponement.

The second leg of the league is set to resume in the first week of February and the Football Association of Thailand expects to conclude the season in time. Meanwhile, BG Pathum United, Port FC, Chiangrai United and Ratchaburi Mitr Phol FC will represent Thailand in the 2021 AFC Champions League after finishing in the top four at the halfway point of the season.

MALAYSIA

The new Malaysian season is scheduled to kick off with the Charity Shield between Johor Darul Ta'zim and Kedah on March 6 after being pushed back from its original end-February date, with the match also doubling up as the opener of the 2021 Malaysia Super League campaign.

The league will be played until August, compared to the usual July ending to accommodate the Malaysia national team's preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint-qualifiers. It will be followed by the FA Cup in September and the Malaysia Cup soon after. The final is scheduled for Nov. 27.

VIETNAM

Vietnam became the first country in the ASEAN region to kick off their 2021 domestic season when Hanoi FC defeated Viettel FC 1-0 to lift the Vietnamese Super Cup in early January. The 2021 V.League 1 season began the following week with Hanoi suffering a shock defeat to Nam Dinh FC in the opener on Jan. 15.

The league, like last season, has been divided into two stages with the first half of the season playing out in a round-robin format. Top six teams at the halfway stage will then enter a championship playoff to decide the domestic champions while the bottom eight sides will fight each other to avoid the single relegation spot. The Vietnamese top flight is expected to run until September 19.

INDONESIA

The PSSI waited for more than ten months before finally deciding to cancel the 2020 Liga 1 and 2 seasons on Jan. 20, 2021. Liga 1 was stopped in mid-March after completing just three rounds of fixtures and was first slated to resume in October. However, after not getting the permission to restart, Liga 1 became only the second top division in Southeast Asia to be declared null and void after Brunei Darussalam's.

As a result, 2020 saw no champions, no promotion and no relegation in Indonesian football and the participating teams for 2021 remain the same as last year. On the brighter side, the passionate football fans in the country can now look forward to a new season -- the start date for which is expected to be announced by the end of February.

MYANMAR

The 2021 season of Myanmar National League 1 has been confirmed for an April start with Shan United looking to defend their throne under new head coach Han Win Aung. The number of clubs in the Myanmarese top flight will be reduced from 12 to 10 this season as Magwe and Southern Myanmar disbanded after last season.

Chinland and Myawady were promoted from the second division, replacing the relegated duo of Chin United and Zwekapin United. The first half of the 2021 MNL will be held at the centralised location of Yangon while the second leg could be held on a home-and-away basis depending on the COVID-19 situation. The league is slated to run till October 2021.

CAMBODIA

Football in Cambodia will return with the preliminary stages of the Hun Sen Cup on February 16 that will see the participation of 21 teams this season, compared to 17 the last term. The 2021 Cambodia League is scheduled to start on March 6 and will be competed between 13 clubs till Oct. 17.

The Hun Sen Cup will resume with its National Stage on July 7 with the final scheduled for September 9. Boeung Ket are the defending champions of the C-League while Visakha overcame Nagaworld 2-0 in the final to emerge victorious in the cup competition.

JAPAN

The 2021 J1 League season will start on Feb. 26 and run until Dec. 4 with Kawasaki Frontale looking to defend their title. However, four teams will be dropping down from the Japanese top division at the end of this season, instead of the usual two, after no relegation was implemented due to COVID-19 in 2020.

Tokushima Vortis and Avispa Fukuoka will be the two teams joining the big boys from the J2 League. Meanwhile, the Thai duo of Chanathip Songkrasin and Theerathon Bunmathan will continue to wear the colours of Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Yokohama F. Marinos respectively into the new season, maintaining a strong interest in the league from Southeast Asian fans.

CHINA

From new team names to measures limiting extravagant spending, it will be a season of changes when the Chinese Super League returns in 2021.

For starters, the Chinese Football Association has ordered all CSL clubs to drop corporate references from their names, meaning clubs including Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG FC will play under new monikers starting this season.

The CFA has also capped foreign player salaries to three million euros a year -- a move which will dent the ability of the Chinese top flight to attract big-name stars like before.

SOUTH KOREA

2020 saw K League 1 return to the summit of Asian football with Ulsan Hyundai bringing the AFC Champions League title to South Korea for the first time since 2016. They and the rest of the field will return to action on Feb. 27 as record champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors gun for a fifth successive league title this year.

The 2020 K League season only saw 27 rounds of matches played, instead of the traditional 38, due to the pandemic disruptions and the number of matches for the 2021 calendar is yet to be confirmed. The first part of the season will see the 12 teams play a round robin with two or three rounds followed by the finals where teams will be split into two groups of six.

AUSTRALIA

In a bid to shift the competition from summer to winter, the 2020-21 season of the A-League began on Dec. 28 and is set to conclude by Jun. 30. Sydney FC steamrolled the competition in the pandemic-interrupted 2020 winning the regular season as well as the Grand Final overcoming Melbourne City.

New Zealand-based Wellington Phoenix will be playing their home matches in Australia during the new season due to the evolving travel restrictions. The 2020-21 season also sees the entry of Macarthur FC, representing South Western Sydney, as the 12th outfit in Australia's premier league.

AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE & AFC CUP

The Asian Football Confederation's premier club competitions AFC Champions League and AFC Cup is getting bigger in 2021 with the ACL expanding to 40 teams from 32 and the AFC Cup, forced into cancellation last year, expanding to 39 sides from 36.

The two tournaments will return in April. The ACL will see increased participation from ASEAN with the Philippines' United City, Singapore's Tampines Rovers and Vietnam's Viettel FC making their group stage debuts.