Bengaluru defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu is at the centre of controversy in the Maldives that has led to the Indian club’s AFC Cup playoff on Tuesday with local team Eagles - as well as the South Asia zone of the competition - being postponed.
The two-time Socceroo was, along with Spanish team-mate Juanan, and a member of Bengaluru’s coaching staff, pictured by local media on the streets of Male, the island’s capital on Saturday evening.
This constituted a clear breach, according to Maldives Minister of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment Ahmed Mahloof, of COVID-19 protocols that had been agreed.
Paartalu, who tested negative for coronavirus along with the entire Bengaluru party upon leaving India and once again on arrival in Male on Friday, was unable to comment when contacted by The World Game.
The defender, like everyone else in the recently-finished India Super League, had spent five months confined to a bubble in Goa in order that the domestic season could go ahead.
“Unacceptable behavior from Bengaluru breaching the strict guidelines…” Mahloof tweeted on Sunday.
“The club should leave Maldives immediately as we can’t entertain this act. We honoured the commitment we gave a few months back even with the surge in cases & pressure from the public.”
“We have informed FAM (Football Association of Maldives) that we cannot hold the match, and asked them to make arrangements for Bengaluru’s departure,” he added.
Bengaluru owner Parth Jindal has promised that the players involved would be punished.
“On behalf of @bengalurufc I am extremely sorry for the inexcusable behaviour of three of our foreign players/staff while in Male - the strictest action will be taken against these players/staff," Jindal tweeted.
“We have let @AFCCup down and can only say that this will never happen again."
Bengaluru officials told The World Game that the situation had become political.
When the Maldives arranged with the AFC to stage the game earlier this year, the COVID-19 situation was relatively calm.
That, however, is no longer the case as the country now has the highest per capita infection rates in the world.
There has been growing opposition to the game going ahead from local media and politicians in opposition to the government.
Such concerns were confirmed by Mahloof in an interview.
“Even before Bengaluru FC’s arrival we had a chat with AFC regarding the possible postponement of the AFC Cup, but the federation responded by saying that it was too late to take such a decision. Hence, we went ahead and allowed the club to come to the country,” Mahloof said, adding that the public had become worried about hosting the game.
“It is important that we already have imposed certain restrictions on travellers from India, yet we gave BFC a special permit to arrive in Maldives for the competition.” he added.
“So, the fact that some Bengaluru FC players still violated guidelines and roamed on the streets surprises me. It has agitated the public and put more pressure on the government, despite us putting so much of effort in hosting the competition."
The winner of the playoff would have entered Group D in Asia’s second tier club competition and games against local club Maziya, India’s Mohun Bagan and Bashundara Kings of Bangladesh but the entire group has been postponed.
“Participating clubs who have travelled to Maldives will be required to arrange for their return home while adhering to the COVID-19 health and travel protocols put in place by the country,” the AFC said in a statement.
“At the same time, the AFC is in contact with all other participating clubs and officials who have not entered the Maldives to cancel their travel arrangements.
"The AFC Cup (South) Group Stage matches are now postponed until further notice with more information to be announced in due course.”