LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s qualification plans for the 2022 World Cup were hit again on Wednesday as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) postponed qualifiers that were scheduled in October and November to 2021.
However, the decision could boost the Champions League hopes of the country’s clubs.
With the coronavirus pandemic still active around the world, Saudi Arabia’s games with Yemen, Singapore, Palestine and Uzbekistan, originally due to take place in March, will be held some time next year.
“With the aim of protecting the health and safety of all participants, FIFA and the AFC will continue to work together to closely monitor the situation in the region and to identify new dates for the respective qualifying matches,” the AFC said in a statement. “Further details on the new dates for the next round of qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup 2023 will be announced in due course.”
It means that there have been no World Cup qualifiers in Asia since November 2019 when Saudi Arabia picked up a crucial 3-2 win over Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
The Green Falcons still have some work to do to finish on top of Group D and guarantee a place in the third stage where 12 teams battle it out for the continent’s four automatic places at the global tournament. The best four runners-up of the eight groups also progress to the next stage.
Hervé Renard’s men are a point behind leaders Uzbekistan, although they have played a game less and will go top if they defeat Yemen in Jeddah in the next game.
It remains to be seen when that will take place and when the second round, originally scheduled to have finished in June, comes to an end and the third stage, due to have started in September, can get going.
“From talking to various federations and hearing their concerns, it was clear that it was best to take a decision as early as possible,” an AFC official told Arab News.
With China announcing in July that it would not host any international sporting event for the rest of 2020 unless it was connected to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and other countries set to follow suit, the AFC felt it had little choice. “The situation was becoming more difficult and complex,“ the official said.
AFC staff admit that, assuming the sporting situation returns to something close to normal next year, then 2021 will be hectic. UEFA has already said that it will add extra games to international windows next year and while that is more difficult in Asia with travel demands, the AFC is looking to do something similar as well as find more spaces in an already-crowded calendar to add more games.
It also means that there will be greater demands on Saudi Arabia as the U-23 team will participate at the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics next July.
There is a silver lining, however. The postponement of World Cup qualifiers will make it easier for Saudi Arabian representatives in the AFC Champions League.
The 32-team competition was delayed in March after just two games in the group stage and will resume in mid-September in west Asia and a month later in the east.
Clubs had been concerned about squeezing in Champions League games during World Cup qualifiers. This was more difficult in the East where, unlike the West, leagues seasons are coming to an end. The K League, the J.League and the Chinese Super League still have many rounds remaining.
“Delaying World Cup qualification gives everyone much more breathing space to finish the Champions League,” an AFC official said.
It was announced in July that the rest of the western group stage — the tournament is split into two geographic zones until the final — will all take place in Qatar.
All four Saudi Arabian representatives are well-placed after two games to continue to the knockout stage. Al- Ahli lead Group A with four points while defending champions Al-Hilal share the lead in Group B with Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan after two wins. Al-Taawoun lead Group C, with Al-Nassr second in Group D.
The final is scheduled to be held on Dec. 5.