The fate of the 2020 AFC Cup lies in the balance with COVID-19 cases rising in countries which are set to host games in the continent’s second tier club competition.
Famous West Asian clubs in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan are waiting to restart the tournament, reserved for the continent’s so-called developing nations, which was originally suspended in March early in the group stage.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rescheduled the games for the 12 teams in the three West Asian groups – there are nine in total – to take place from Oct. 23 to Nov. 4. The final is set to take place on December 12.
Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan are each due to host one group each. Yet Kuwait has recorded over 8,000 cases in the second half of August with Bahrain reaching 50,000 in total in the middle of the month.
The Maldives, host of the South Asian zone, has seen a spike of cases in the second half of August. The AFC has also been struggling to find a host for the Central Asian group and is now considering scrapping the tournament.
“It’s looking difficult to go ahead,” an AFC official told Arab News. “There are still a lot of games to play and while that can be managed, there are a lot of host countries and this is proving to be an issue.”
“We will take a good look at the situation in the next month and then make a final decision. Nobody wants to cancel the tournament but if the hosts can’t host the games then there is no other option as there is no option to postpone further.”
A cancellation would be grave news for West Asian clubs in the tournament, most of which have played two games in the group stage.
Al-Jaish of Syria and Bahrain’s Manama are level on four points in Group A ahead of holders Al-Ahed of Lebanon and Palestine side Hilal Al-Quds.
In Group B, Al-Kuwait lead the way with Lebanese team Al-Ansar close behind. Al-Wathba of Syria and Jordan’s Al-Faisaly are still in the running while Group C sees Kuwait’s Al-Qadsia, Dhofar of Oman and Bahrain giants Al-Riffa level on points with Al Jazeera of Jordan in last place.
West Asia has an excellent record in the competition, winning the last four trophies. Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya triumphed three times in succession until Al-Ahed of Lebanon took the prize in November 2019.
The AFC, which could also suspend the Asian U-16 Championships that are scheduled to take place in Bahrain in November, is confident however that its flagship club tournament will go ahead as planned.
The AFC Champions League, featuring the best clubs from the continent’s strongest leagues, is also in the early rounds but the 16 teams in the west Asian half of the draw, are due to recommence in mid-September with in the ‘hub’ of Qatar. Malaysia and, probably Thailand, will host the eastern half in October.
The AFC is confident that this hub system and the relative lack of travel involved will mean that the tournament, more prestigious than the AFC Cup and won by Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal in 2019, can be completed.
There is a little more breathing space as earlier in August the AFC postponed four 2022 World Cup qualifiers that were set for October and November to 2021 but if the 2020 edition of the AFC Cup is axed, concerns will grow over the fate of its bigger brother.