Coronavirus takes hold of AFC Champions League once more

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The 2020 AFC Champions League resumed its group stage after almost seven months last week only for coronavirus to reestablish its grip on the competition to the extent that there are already calls for a further suspension.

The group stage had barely started when it was postponed in March. While the East Asian half of the tournament has to wait until the middle of November to restart, the western zone kicked off on September 15.

It is not exactly going smoothly. 

First, Al-Wahda were unable to make the short trip earlier this month from the United Arab Emirates to Qatar, designated as the regional hub that will host the rest of the group games, because of a case of coronavirus in the team.  

The Abu Dhabi club requested that the group games be postponed but the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) refused and ruled that Al-Wahda had to forfeit their games. 

More serious is the situation with Al-Hilal. The defending champions made it to Qatar and collected four points from the last two games against Pakhtakor but have been hit with a major outbreak of the virus.  

Fifteen players (as well as 11 staff) have been affected leaving the Saudi Arabians struggling to field a team. In the second game against the Uzbek giants, Al-Hilal could not even name a reserve goalkeeper.  

The AFC allowed the team to draft in two reserve goalkeepers from back home. Yet the virus has continued to spread to the extent that the three-time continental champions have even requested that club legend Mohammad Al-Shalhoub, who recently retired after 22 years with the Riyadh giants, come back into the fold and fill the growing gaps. 

Al-Hilal officials told SBS The World Game that they asked the AFC for a postponement on Saturday, as the following day they are in action against Iran’s Shahr Khodro when just a point will be enough to secure a place in the second round, but the request was refused. 

According to Al-Hilal, as long as they can name a squad of 13 players then the fixture will go ahead. If not then the team will be considered, like Al-Wahda, as having withdrawn from the tournament.  

There are growing calls in Saudi Arabia for the AFC to allow a suspension. Saudi legend Sami Al-Jaber who appeared at four World Cups for the country, criticised the AFC for treating Al-Wahda and Al-Hilal in a similar fashion. 

“The AFC is not required to respect the defending champion, but rather to respect the fairness of competition and ensure equal opportunities for those who have attended to complete their journey in the championship,” Al-Jaber, a former president of Al-Hilal, said. 

Other Saudi clubs in the tournament are understood to have also expressed their concern. Al-Taawoun may have lost their last two games with Mitch Duke in the team but still sit in second in Group C. Al-Nasr with Brad Jones in goal have been going well and have already booked a place in the round of 16, with two games remaining. 

The situation is also being watched closely in the east. While Qatar has been named as the designated hub for the west, there are problems with finding a similar host on the opposite side of the continent. Malaysia was due to stage two of the four groups but now looks like it will not do so. 

Qatar is a possible host for the eastern zone too but first, clubs in the west are still trying to find a way to finish the first round, seven months after it all started.