The 2021 AFC Champions League group stage is set to start in April, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in line, if necessary, to play host to multiple games as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) looks for ways to safely complete its flagship tournament in the middle of a global pandemic.
It will be the second successive year that the tournament has been affected by the coronavirus. With the experience gained in 2020 when Qatar stepped in to host the remainder of the group and knockout stage after the competition was postponed earlier in the year, the AFC is confident that all will go smoothly.
Last year’s edition was eventually won by South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in December, but 2021 is set to be the biggest yet with the group stage expanding from 32 to 40 teams.
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Wehda will enter qualification playoffs in March, and if successful, will join Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and 2019 champions Al-Hilal in the first round.
“The playoffs are scheduled to take place in March and the group stage in April,” an AFC official told Arab News. “We would prefer to host games in two or three cities in each region, but that depends on how the coronavirus situation develops. It may be that there are new rules put in place around Asia which mean that we will have to return to a single hub system.”
The continental competition is usually split into two geographic zones until the final. The group stage of the West Asian side of the tournament is set to take place over two weeks in the second half of April.
The eastern zone, which does not yet have a potential host nation and could again take place in the west, will start and finish a week later.
Given what happened last year, the AFC is staying flexible on when and where the knockout stages will take place, especially as Asian national teams are expected to be busy with 2022 World Cup qualifiers in June. It is likely however that both east and west Asian teams will be mixed together from at least the quarterfinal stage onward.
The Champions League is not the only tournament affected by the global pandemic. On Friday, the Tajikistan Football Association announced that the AFC-U16 and U-19 Championships will be postponed.
The former was originally scheduled to take place in Bahrain last September and October before it was rearranged for March this year. It remains to be seen whether it happens at all, as the tournament was already planned to be the final edition of the U-16 competition, with the AFC moving to an U-17 version from 2023.
Saudi Arabia may have to wait to defend the AFC-U19 Championship that was won in 2018 as the tournament in Uzbekistan is also set to be, at the very least, postponed. Originally scheduled to be held last October, it was rearranged for March.
It is not only Asia that is striving to find ways to complete competitions in difficult circumstances. On Friday, FIFA announced that Auckland City had withdrawn from the Club World Cup that is set to kick off in Qatar in February. The Oceania champions will stay home due to travel restrictions put in place by the New Zealand government.
“FIFA has today been informed by Auckland City FC that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic and related quarantine measures required by the New Zealand authorities, the club will be unable to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup 2020,” the world governing body said in a statement.
“Despite FIFA’s regular exchanges with the club, New Zealand Football and the OFC in recent days, the requirements of the New Zealand authorities in relation to isolation and quarantine go beyond FIFA’s remit and, therefore, it was not possible to reach a solution.”
It means that Oceania’s representatives will miss their opening round showdown with Al-Duhail, representing the host nation, on Feb. 1. The Qataris will receive a bye to the second round and a match-up against either Al-Ahly of Egypt, South Korea’s Ulsan or Tigres of Mexico, the respective champions of Africa, Asia and CONCAFAF.
The draw will be made on Tuesday, with European representatives Bayern Munich and South America’s champions, to be determined on Jan. 30, placed in the semifinals.
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