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AFC Champions League

AFC Champions League: Kashima Antlers reach semi-final after beating Tianjin Quanjian but Macau is the real winner

Chinese Super League and J. League sides turn out in force as locals embrace quality football usually lacking at Olympic Stadium

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 11:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 12:05pm

The seventh best team in Japan beating the 10th best team in China 3-0 in a stadium over 2,000 kilometres away from the “home” team sounds bad on paper but those numbers do not tell the whole story of Tianjin Quanjian v Kashima Antlers in Macau’s Olympic Stadium.

About 5,000 tickets for Tuesday night’s game were given out to locals last Saturday by the Macau FA and they were snapped up within two hours.

That meant the biggest crowd for a game in Macau in quite some time, with the stadium having to open all its gates rather than the usual one or two in the main stand and one opposite for domestic league games.

Hundreds of men, women and children milled around in the hours before kick-off, swelling as the minutes ticked down to the AFC Champions League making its Macau debut.

There was a World Cup vibe as many seemed to be neutrals, sporting football shirts from around the world.

The expected Barcelona, Juventus and English Premier League giants mixed with Nigeria’s Russia 2018 home kit, Independiente, Atletico Mineiro, Leicester City, Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai Shenhua and Guangzhou R&F.

These stood out among the Japan national team jerseys and the two teams playing, as did the Pato shirts with plenty of fans clearly there just to watch the Brazilian.

Kashima may have been outgunned in fan support but they were never outsung. It was like a cup final as Tianjin gave as good as they got for the opening exchanges but, as would become evident on the pitch, the Japanese were a level above.

This game was different, taking place in Macau because Tianjin failed to find a suitable venue once security concerns meant they could not play at home.

There were also concerns with Macau taking a hit from Typhoon Mangkhut over the weekend but the stadium survived unscathed.

The same could not be said for the trees uprooted in the streets, but much like the amateur football matches on the outer pitches of the sports centre, people were just going about their business.

And business was good. Kashima fans stocking up in the 7-Eleven and fans getting a pre-match feed in the nearby McDonald’s.

Business was best for the more enterprising of the local populace. Several took the opportunity to sell on tickets at a profit (which must be easier if they were free in the first place).

While the game became more of a lost cause for China’s only remaining team in the AFC Champions League with each passing goal, for the first quarter of an hour it looked as though it would be game on.

Pato missed Friday’s CSL game after suffering gastroenteritis but the former Golden Boy showed no ill effects in the lights of Macau’s Galaxy Casino and Hotel. Pato rolled back the years to cause problems for the visitors but it was all for nought when Kashima added three unanswered goals to their 2-0 lead from the first leg.

How Pato must miss Anthony Modeste and Axel Witsel.

How Paulo Sousa must have wished that some of the names on the back of the shirts in the stands were on his bench. Messi, Salah, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Kante, Alexis Sanchez, Pogba, Nasri and Luke Shaw. Any of them could have made a difference but instead the CSL’s rules surrounding its two transfer windows meant it was always slim pickings for Sousa and Pato as they looked to extend their remarkable debut campaign alongside the cream of the continent.

Pato is becoming beloved in China and has embraced his new life in a way that many other sporting imports do not. He might want to stay in China but it would be understandable if he or Sousa see their future at another club.

This was a bizarre end to a Champions League campaign that began with Pato wearing astro turf trainers on a frozen pitch against Ceres-Negros in the play-offs in February and finished with him playing in a sports centre in the lights of a casino complex.

As for the hosts, the game has to be a victory for them. Proof that there is a football culture, if not the quality of the domestic league to match it.

It would be a shame if this was the first and last game.