Qatar to Provide Neutral Ground for Asian World Cup Qualifiers?
In a recent move by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the scheduled March 2021 match days for the Second Round of the Asian World Cup 2022 qualifiers have been postponed. Travel and quarantine restrictions, which vary from country to country depending on virus case numbers, have created a logistical nightmare for the planned home and away matches. The AFC has responded by postponing the planned March bouts until May/June 2021 and calling for a centralised format for the remaining Round Two games.
By inviting member nations to host their respective Round Two groups in a centralised format, the AFC hopes to overcome travel and quarantine restrictions (which may remain until the Summer months and beyond) and ensure tournament health and safety. If the new format goes ahead, the final match days would be held in up to eight locations, one for each group (the forty contesting teams have been split into eight groups, A through to H).
Hub Down Under
Australia has expressed its desire to host Group B's remaining games, including teams from Jordan, Kuwait, Nepal and Taiwan. However, Australia's football association (FA) faces an uphill battle with its government to gain the relevant approvals. Currently, the country is imposing blanket two-week quarantine restrictions on anyone entering the country, which would also include several of Australia's national team players who play overseas. The present restrictions would make it impossible for the Aussies to host the games. According to AFC criteria, potential hosts of the group qualifiers must exempt participating teams from quarantine, only requiring appropriate Covid-19 testing to enter the respective country.
To date, none of the other Group B team nations has openly expressed an interest in hosting the qualifiers hub. Still, rumours are circulating that the games could be played in a neutral venue, such as Qatar.
Taking the games to Qatar would be an obvious choice. As host of the up-and-coming World Cup, the Arab nation has the perfect infrastructure to accommodate the tournament in terms of stadiums, training facilities and accommodation. Even the heat during the summer months, which is known to be searing, wouldn't be an issue since the country's World Cup stadiums and training facilities are all equipped with state-of-the-art cooling technology. But, more importantly, Qatar has the recent and wholly successful experience of hosting the AFC's Asian Champions League during the coronavirus pandemic under its belt. 32 teams landed in Doha across two tournaments (west and east) and were accommodated in secure 'medical bubbles' for the duration of each event. Stringent health and safety measures were adopted in associated hotels, training grounds and stadiums, as was extensive COVID-19 testing. The World Cup hosts were widely praised for their efforts, as well as their facilities and infrastructure. Qatar has since held the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup as well.
Negotiations between the Australian FA and the nations government officials are ongoing, but the deadline for applications is March 5th, with FIFA's and the AFC's decision due on March 15th. For the Aussies nation team, the Socceroos, playing out their last four Round Two matches at home would be ideal. However, if they do end up travelling to a neutral venue to fight for their place in Round Three of the qualifiers, Qatar may well be the best option for all concerned.
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