LONDON: After a gap of 16 months, Saudi Arabia will finally return to 2022 World Cup qualification action in March, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced on Friday, though most teams in the continent have seen their games pushed back until June.
The Green Falcons will take on Yemen in Riyadh on Mar. 30 in Group D in just one of four fixtures across Asia not to be postponed, with the remaining games in the second round of qualification now set to take place in June.
“Taking into consideration the existing travel and quarantine restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic across the continent, the AFC and FIFA have jointly agreed to postpone the majority of the upcoming Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” the AFC said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia currently sit in second with eight points from four games but should the three-time Asian champions, as expected, defeat fourth-placed Yemen then they will go two points clear above Uzbekistan with three games in the second round remaining. FIFA has ruled that the stage has to be finished by June 15.
The winners of the eight groups, along with the four best performing second-placed teams, will progress to the third round of qualification which is scheduled to start in September.
Following the Yemen test, Saudi Arabia, aiming for a sixth appearance on the biggest stage, were originally scheduled to then play in Singapore and return home to finish the second round against Palestine and Uzbekistan.
While the AFC confirmed Friday that the rest of the fixtures will take place in June, the ongoing global pandemic means that it has yet to be confirmed where they will be held. In order to limit travel as much as possible, the organisation said that the games will be held in one location.
“As part of efforts to ensure the safe and successful completion of the Asian Qualifiers, the AFC will open the invitation to Member Associations to host their respective groups in a centralised format and will confirm and communicate in due course the match schedule for the June 2021 international window.”
It is expected that Saudi Arabia will host all remaining seven Group D games, though all member associations have until Mar. 5 to make a formal request to the AFC which will announce the host venues ten days later.
Saudi Arabia have, unlike a number of teams in Asia, been in action since the last qualifiers in November 2019. Herve Renard’s men played Jamaica twice in November last year in Riyadh, winning the first game 3-0 and losing the second 2-1.
Renard, appointed in July 2019, told French media this week that he is looking forward to international football getting back underway. “I am impatient to start again but there is a strange feeling as the break has been too long,” said the former Morocco and Ivory Coast coach.
“We have to adapt to the situation like everyone else and it gives me a chance to see the players in action for their clubs.”