Asian World Cup Qualifiers Back on Track and Hosts Confirmed
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) recently announced the postponed joint qualifiers for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar and the 2023 Asian Cup China would be resumed on May 31st 2021. The second round of the tournament is scheduled to run until June 15th. The AFC also rolled out its plan for the remaining matches to be played out in centralised hubs, naming Bahrain, China, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as hosts.
Postponements and Delays
Back in February, and with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the globe, the AFC decided to postpone the planned March fixtures for the qualifying tournament's second round…and not for the first time.
The first round of the tournament successfully got underway in June 2019, with the second round kicking-off in September 2019. The continuation of Round Two's fixtures was due to start in March 2020 but was delayed due to the implications of the newly emerged pandemic. The postponed matches were rescheduled to start again in October 2020 and then again for March 2021 - only to be thwarted by COVID-19 on both occasions. Travel was restricted to and from nations with high infection rates and strict quarantine rules imposed for those who travelled, creating an almighty headache for those organising international football. The result; only one match between Qatar and Bangladesh has been played out since November 2019.
Except for four matches still going ahead in March, the remaining Round Two games have now been rescheduled between May 31st and June 15th. To overcome the ongoing travel and quarantine restrictions obstructing the tournament and to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, the AFC decided to hold the outstanding matches in a single centralised location for each group (the forty contesting teams have been split into eight groups, A through to H). Member nations were asked to register their interest in becoming hosts for their respective group - a call to which numerous countries replied; the home advantage a definite draw. Publicly, Australia expressed its desire to host Group B's remaining games. Iran, Bahrain, and Iraq disclosed their keenness to host Group C. The United Arab Emirates hoped to host Group G and South Korea Group H.
Hosting rights were awarded on the basis that bidding countries could provide suitable accommodation for the participating teams, high-quality training grounds and stadiums conforming to international standards, and the approval from their own health authorities that participating teams be exempt from quarantine rules. On March 12th, the AFC announced that Bahrain, China, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the UAE had secured the right to serve as tournament hubs. Australia missed out due to its country's tough quarantine restrictions.
While the exact venues for the remaining matches are yet to be determined, the eight hub hosts will accommodate teams from the following nations:
- Group A - China will host Guam, the Maldives and the Philippines, and group leaders Syria;
- Group B - second-placed Kuwait will welcome the group's front runners Australia, as well as Chinese Taipei, Jordan and Nepal;
- Group C - Bahrain will play alongside Cambodia, Hong Kong, Iran and Iraq, who are currently top of the group's standings;
- Group D - Saudi Arabia will host Palestine, Singapore, pack leaders Uzbekistan, and Yemen;
- Group E - 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar will entertain Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and neighbours Oman;
- Group F - group leaders Japan will receive Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Myanmar and Tajikistan;
- Group G - the UAE will host Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, who lead the group by two points;
- Group H - South Korea will host a tightly contested group that includes Lebanon, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan.
Not including the four matches still to be held in March, the June fixtures will see sixty matches contested. The eight group winners and the four runners-up will advance to the third round of the qualifiers, scheduled to start in September 2021.
Round Three will draw squads into two groups of six teams that will also play home-and-away round-robin matches. By the end of that round, only the top two nations from each group will be guaranteed places at the World Cup. The two third-placed teams will advance to Round Four, the winner of which will play in the inter-confederation play-offs in June 2022 for one of the last two tournament qualification spots. The twelve winning squads at the end of Round Three also automatically qualify for the Asian Cup 2023.
Familiar Territory for Qatar
By hosting each of the eight groups in a single country, organisers will likely request that tournaments are arranged within the COVID-19 'medical bubble environment.' Fortunately for World Cup hosts Qatar, this is familiar territory.
Qatar has several hosting experiences amid the coronavirus crisis under its belt already, namely the AFC's Asian Champions League and the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup. During each tournament, squads, officials, and staff were all organised in secure 'medical bubbles', incorporating accommodation, transportation, training grounds, changing rooms, etc., for each event's duration. Stringent health and safety measures, disinfection and sanitisation protocols were adopted in associated hotels, training grounds and stadiums. Extensive COVID-19 testing was required throughout, as was obligatory social distancing and wearing of masks. The World Cup hosts have been widely praised for their efforts and their facilities, and each of the events deemed greatly successful. No doubt, the nation will be held up as a model for others during the final rounds of the Asian World Cup qualifiers.
The first matchdays of the European qualifiers have ended, and while many results are as expected, there have been plenty of shocks and surprises along the way.
The Qatari Football Association has announced its national team squad list for the upcoming European World Cup qualifying tournament.
Coronavirus restrictions mean South America's World Cup qualifier dates for March have been postponed. A headache for CONMEBOL, but for European teams, it's a win.
Dates for the AFC qualifiers are in disarray due to COVID-19 travel restrictions in participating countries, could hosting some of the games in Doha be the answer?