February 22, 2021

World Cup 2022 Asian Qualifiers Postponed Until Summer 2021

The chaos that the COVID-19 pandemic wrought on the football world in 2020 has, unsurprisingly, carried over into 2021. Not only do tournament and match organisers have to contend with a concertinaed fixture schedule, continuing health risks and player fatigue due to condensed timetables, but they also have to contend with the logistical nightmare of home and away matches. Travel and quarantine restrictions, which vary from country to country depending on virus case numbers, are currently proving to be a number one headache.

Asian Qualifier Delays

One casualty of the coronavirus upheaval is the joint qualifiers for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar and the 2023 Asian Cup China. Matchdays 7 and 8 of the Second Round of Asian qualifiers have, for most games, been postponed...again. This latest postponement is the third - the tournament has effectively been halted since November 19th 2019, with only one match between Qatar and Bangladesh being played in the last year or so. The original dates were set for late March 2020; these dates were then pushed to early October as the virus took hold worldwide. Unfortunately, as the virus launched into its second wave post-summer, the dates were moved once again to March 2021. Except for four matches still going ahead*, the games are now being rescheduled between May 31st and June 15th. This move will have a knock-on effect on the final two matchdays of the Second Round, which are currently scheduled for June 11th and 15th, respectively. For some of the national squads, the June 2021 window looks likely to be very busy.

(*Group F’s Tajikistan will take on Mongolia and Group D’s Saudi Arabia will go head to head against Yemen on March 25th, and on March 30th, Group B’s Nepal will battle it out against the Australians, while Mongolia takes on Japan in Group F.)

Centralised Hosting

To help overcome travel and quarantine restrictions and ensure tournament health and safety, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has invited its member nations to register their interest in hosting their respective Round Two groups in a centralised format. In effect, the final match days would be held in just eight locations, one for each group (the forty contesting teams have been split into eight groups, A through to H). Currently, each country hosts its own 'home' matches. 

Reportedly, AFC confederation members that register their interest must meet certain criteria if they want to be considered as hosts, such as:

  • Providing at least five five-star hotel accommodation for the participating teams;
  • Having available five high-quality training grounds and two stadiums that meet international standards;
  • Allowing participating teams to be exempt from quarantine and require appropriate Covid-19 testing only to enter the respective country.

The deadline for applications is this March 5th, and a decision from FIFA and the AFC is, apparently, due on March 15th.

If the matches go ahead as planned in June, Round Three of the qualifiers won’t begin until September 2021, with the final rounds not concluding until May/June 2022. So, staying on track is becoming increasingly important as the qualifiers' schedule becomes dangerously marginalised due to COVID-delays. Indeed, the inter-continental play-offs, to decide the final two qualification spots after each confederation's qualifiers are complete, are also now scheduled for June 2022 (previously November 2021). The various date shufflings also mean the World Cup draw will now take place only a few short months from the tournament's actual kick-off date, November 21st. Any further delays could cause some serious scheduling issues.

Fortunately, several countries have already stepped forward to declare their interest in hosting their final group matches. To date, Australia has expressed its desire to host Group B's remaining games. Iran, Bahrain, and Iraq have disclosed their keenness to host Group C. And, the United Arab Emirates are hoping to host Group G. 

It will be interesting to see if Qatar also puts its hat in the ring to host Group E's final games. After all, the country has the infrastructure (being World Cup hosts already) and the experience of having hosted the AFC's Asian Champions League during the coronavirus pandemic in the latter half of 2020. Qatar provided a secure 'medical bubble' for all 32 teams involved. 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 the tournament was completed successfully and with relatively few virus-related issues.

Asian Qualifiers Format

For anyone less ofay with the Asian confederations World Cup qualifying format, here's a quick guide and update on progress so far:

The Asian qualifiers tournament is split into four rounds and involves 46 AFC member teams. The national squads battle it out to qualify for the 4.5 places allocated to the Asian confederation for the World Cup tournament - the half slot may or may not be won by an Asian team at the intercontinental play-offs.

Round-One of the 2022 qualifiers has already been completed and saw twelve teams (those ranked 35-46, based on FIFA ranking) play home-and-away matches over two legs. The six winners advanced to Round Two.

The Second Round of the Asian qualifiers is already over halfway complete and involves forty teams split into eight groups. Only four more match days remain to complete the home and away round-robin games for each of the eight groups. Of the forty teams (made up from those ranked 1 to 34, based on FIFA ranking, and the six winners from Round One), only eight group winners and four best runners-up will advance to the next stage.

(Note: If Qatar finishes Round Two as group winners or best runner up, the fifth-best runners up will also take a place in Round Three since Qatar have already qualified as World Cup hosts.)

The Third Round will draw squads into two groups of six teams that will also play home-and-away round-robin matches. The top four teams will join the Qatari squad at the World Cup; the two third-placed teams will advance to Round Four. 

The winner of the single-leg Fourth Round will play in the inter-confederation play-offs in June 2022 for one of the last two qualification spots.

Main image: Mooinblack/Shutterstock.com

Published: February 22, 2021
Last updated: February 22, 2021
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