Why are Al Hilal representing Asia at the FIFA Club World Cup even though they have not won last season's AFC Champions League?

Al Hilal are the most-recent winners of the AFC Champions League from their triumph in 2021, with last season's edition only set to be completed this May. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

For the second successive FIFA Club World Cup, Saudi Pro League giants Al Hilal will be gracing the tournament as the representatives from the Asian Football Confederation.

Unlike last year, however, their official designation at the competition is not as the winners of the latest season of the AFC Champions League.

Instead, while the other five continental confederations are represented by their respective champions, Al Hilal were instead nominated to contest the tournament for Asia.

How exactly did such a curious scenario arise?

As it turns out, the explanation is a fairly simple one.

And the fact of the matter is that Al Hilal are the reigning ACL champions even if they have not won the most recent edition of Asia's premier club competition -- because it is yet to be completed.

With the Asian football calendar originally in sync with the calendar year, the ACL usually took place from February to November -- meaning the champions would have been crowned in time to grace the Club World Cup a month or so later.

Nonetheless, following the AFC's decision to shift to a September-to-May calendar in line with the majority of competitions around the world -- including Europe's most-prominent tournaments -- it means last year's ACL (still officially referred to as the 2022 campaign rather than 2022-23) will only conclude later this year.

Had the tournament adhered to its original calendar and concluded by the end of last year, it could easily have been Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds flying the flag for Asia at the Club World Cup for the third time in their history -- having previously featured in 2007 and 2017.

Despite finishing a disappointing 9th in the 2022 J1 League season, Urawa found form on the continental stage to see off all comers in the ACL's East Zone and book their place in the final, although they now have the unique proposition of having an eight-month gap between their victorious semifinal tie and the decider in May.

Yet, it could also be Al Hilal who once again emerge as champions of Asia given they are still in the running, with the West Zone's knockout round set to be completed later this month in whirlwind fashion.

They are among eight teams ready to contest the last-16 ties starting on Feb. 19 although they are likely to face stiff competition from compatriots Al Shabab and Qatari heavyweights Al Duhail, who both performed exceptionally in the group stage.

But for a change in calendar, Al Hilal may or may not have been preparing for feature at the Club World Cup for a second successive edition.

Still, they are the current kings of the continent and should give a good account of themselves and Asian football, even if they are officially at the competition as the AFC's "nominated representative" rather than its champions.