JEDDAH: Al-Hilal have criticized the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for its “inflexibility” after the reigning champions were kicked out of the Asian Champions League because they were only able to muster 11 players for their final Group B fixture.
The Saudi club, which had already qualified for the last 16, said it had been determined to defend its title despite 30 players and staff becoming infected with COVID-19 in the Qatar hub where Asia’s premier club competition resumed last week.
“The board of directors sought to work on a number of methods that preserved Al-Hilal’s right to compete without any disorder to the tournament,” the club said in a statement.
“All these requests were rejected by the AFC, in spite of facing compelling circumstances that required greater flexibility from the AFC in assessing the situation.”
Among the suggestions rejected by the AFC, Al-Hilal said, were that the club would forfeit its final group match against Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai but not its place in the competition, and that there should be a one-day postponement of Wednesday’s fixture.
It also suggested the knockout stages, scheduled to start on Sunday, should be put back “in the light of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the level of the whole tournament, not just Al-Hilal.”
The AFC said when announcing Al-Hilal’s exit that it had already allowed the club to bring in players to replace some of those who had contracted the virus and that a postponement would have a “huge negative impact” on the schedule.
Al-Hilal also said the competition rules demanding matchday squads of 13 players contravened FIFA’s “basic law of the game” that only 11, including one goalkeeper, were required to contest a football match.
The board said it was considering submitting a protest to the “judicial authorities.”
Majed Garoub, Saudi lawyer and founder and chairman of the law firm of Majed Garoub, told Arab News that Al-Hilal “entered the championship to defend their title. The team fought hard until they reached the last 16, and this means they are confident of themselves.”
“For Hilal players, they were not defeated in the field, other factors defeated them. The Asian federation’s decision was according to the regulations of the tournament. From a formal point of view, it was legal.”
However, he said, “instead of kicking Hilal out of the champion the disrespectful way they did, they could have decided a 0-3 defeat against Hilal before its first match in the last 16. This way, Hilal would have left the tournament like any other team that has lost in the last 16.”
Everyone sympathized with Hilal, he said, but as is the case in such championships, the scheduled matches should be played in their prescheduled time, as hotel bookings, air reservations, broadcasting and many other things are preplanned.
Garoub said that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had no authority over the continental tournaments, and therefore, it can change nothing.
According the rules of the championship, the disciplinary committee and the relevant committees within the Asian federation have the final say.
However, he said, taking the case to CAS or FIFA can show these big entities how much the Gulf teams, especially from Saudi and UAE, are suffering from their continental federation.
Al-Hilal’s departure means Shabab Al Ahli Dubai qualify for the knockout stage from Group B along with Uzbeki club Pakhtakor, who beat Iran’s Shahr Khodro 1-0 in their final round robin match in Doha on Wednesday.
Group A, which was reduced to three teams when Emirati club Al-Wahda were kicked out before the resumption after an outbreak of COVID-19 in their squad, also concluded on Wednesday.
Iran’s Esteghlal beat the Saudi group winners Al-Ahli 3-0 at Al-Janoub Stadium to secure second spot and a place in the knockout stages ahead of Iraqi champions Al-Shorta.
Al-Ahli will play Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai in the first round of the last 16 clash on Sunday at Al-Janoub Stadium before Pakhtakor take on Esteghlal later.