By Paul Nicholson
August 12 – Renewed fears over the danger of spread of the Coronavirus in Asia have forced the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to push back qualifying rounds for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and Asian Cup China 2023 into next year.
“In light of the current COVID-19 situation in many countries, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have jointly decided that the upcoming qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, originally scheduled to take place during the international match windows in October and November 2020, will be rescheduled to 2021,” said the AFC in a statement.
The AFC has always caveated the calendar dates saying that player, staff and public health issues would be the key factor in any return to international fixtures. They reiterated this saying: “With the aim of protecting the health and safety of all participants, FIFA and the AFC will continue to work together to closely monitor the situation in the region and to identify new dates for the respective qualifying matches.”
Those new dates have not been set yet but at this stage there are still enough dates in the calendar to be able to keep the qualification format as it currently stands.
The key date in the current international calendar is to qualify teams for the World Cup by March 2022, in time for the final inter-confederation play-off between the AFC qualifier and, most likely, a Concacaf qualifier for the final 2022 qualification place. There is also space for FIFA to be able to push back final qualification dates with the World Cup in 2020 being played in December rather than its traditional summer time slot.
This is the second time the AFC has pushed qualification dates back. In June the AFC released ‘proposed’ match dates for the remaining matches of Round 2 in the World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers.
Matchdays 7 and 8 were originally scheduled to take place in March and June 2020 but then re-scheduled to take place on October 8 and 13. Matchdays 9 and 10 were rescheduled to November 12 and 17, 2020.
Currently at the second preliminary group stage, most nations still have three games to complete. The AFC had hoped to finish this stage by the end of 2020 to allow 12 qualifiers to go forward into two groups of six – each team playing each other in their group home and away. The top two from each of the groups of six qualify for Qatar 2022 with the third placed teams playing off for a further chance to qualify via the inter-confederation play-off.
The AFC needs a minimum of 14 match days to complete World Cup qualification.
FIFA will likely have to sanction more international match days with a January 2021 international match window looking increasingly likely.
Only group winners in the current AFC group stage are guaranteed entry into the final 12 stage of AFC World Cup qualification, and the groups are currently poised at a fascinating position. A number of the confederation’s ‘big’ nations still have significant work to do to qualify for the final 12 – including Iran, China, South Korea and the UAE.
The challenge for the AFC in getting matches played is more difficult than in other confederations. The AFC covers the largest geographical area of any confederation and covers more time zones. The time taken to travel these time zones can be brutal and with nations in various different stages of lockdown and/or quarantine, more date flexibility to get matches played looks inevitable.
The other issue is also allowing teams to prepare properly for the World Cup qualifiers. In the past teams have been often almost thrown together at the last minute. But football within the AFC has moved on significantly and such has the become the importance of Asian Cup and World Cup qualification to individual nations that none will be comfortable competing without proper team preparation.
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