KUALA LUMPUR: Asia’s top football competitions will go ahead this year despite the coronavirus pandemic, a senior official told AFP, although games may have to be played behind closed doors. Windsor John, general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said he was confident that the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup would both be completed. Both tournaments, featuring teams from throughout Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East, are on hold until at least the end of June after COVID-19 shuttered professional sport worldwide.
“Both will be played this year. We still have time,” John told AFP, adding that new dates for the competitions may be known by the end of April. However, John did not rule out matches being played without fans “if that’s what the health authorities need”.The AFC is determined for both tournaments to go ahead “for sporting reasons and to fulfil commercial obligations”, he said. His comments came after the AFC on Tuesday announced the indefinite postponement of all matches scheduled for May and June due to the virus.
The Champions League, the region’s premier club competition, and the second-tier AFC Cup were both halted in March as the pandemic’s spread forced governments to impose strict travel restrictions. Both tournaments are on an increasingly tight schedule, with the 32-team Champions League needing to complete four rounds of group-stage matches in July before the postponed knock-out phase begins in August.
The group phase of the AFC Cup will also have to be completed in a rush once matches resume. The finals for both tournaments — which traditionally take a break in July, to avoid the worst of the Asian summer heat — are scheduled to take place in November. Domestic leagues remain on hold around the world, including in China where the virus first emerged, but where football shows no sign of returning despite optimism the outbreak is under control.
Asia’s extended shutdown, announced on Tuesday, also affects the two-legged women’s Olympic qualifying play-off between China and South Korea, which had already been moved to June 1 and 9. The region’s premier club competition was put on hold in March as the pandemic spread, and the latest reshuffle means the 32-team group stage will have to be completed in July before the already-postponed knock-out rounds start a month later.
“Following the continued preventive measures and travel restrictions put in place by several governments, the Asian Football Confederation has decided today to postpone all matches and competitions scheduled to take place in May and June until further notice,” an AFC statement said. “As one of the first confederations in world football to undertake precautionary measures in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest decision reinforces the AFC’s commitment to ensure the safety and wellbeing of players, participating teams, officials, fans and all stakeholders.”
Less than two of the six rounds of group-stage matches have been completed so far, meaning the competition will face severe congestion even if it returns in July. The extended shutdown also affects the two-legged women’s Olympic qualifying play-off between China and South Korea, which had already been moved to June 1 and 9. June qualifiers for the men’s 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup had already been postponed.
Football was one of the first sports affected by travel restrictions prompted by the coronavirus, which has now forced the blanket stoppage of professional sporting events worldwide. – AFP