The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) decision to postpone the remaining rounds of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers has ensured that 2020 will go by without any international football on the continent.
The last round of the World Cup qualifier had taken place in November of 2019 before the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to the hopes of seeing international football in 2020. The AFC had initially postponed the matches set to be held in March and June to October and November owing to the Covid-19 situation in many countries.
However, with the pandemic showing no signs of easing in many countries including India, AFC have been forced to delay it further.
India were set to play Qatar in October, followed by crucial games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan in November 2020. But AFC's decision has thrown open a lot of question marks on the upcoming season of Indian football.
"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,” the AFC said in a statement. “Further details on the new dates for the next round of qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup 2023 will be announced in due course.”
It is also likely that the remaining matches will be played as per the usual 'home and away' format after the pandemic eases across the continent and not at any centralised venue.
Goal understands that AFC had considered holding the games in October and November itself at a centralised venue for each group, much like how they plan to complete the 2020 AFC Champions League and AFC Cup tournaments.
It is known that most countries, including powerhouses like China, were not in favour of AFC's suggestion as none of them wanted to give away their home advantage for a crucial tournament like the World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, China had also announced that if it was to be a centralised venue, they will accept it only if China could host the same. This sentiment was echoed by many others which meant AFC had no choice but to postpone the fixtures.
“From talking to various federations and hearing their concerns, it was clear that it was best to take a decision as early as possible,” an AFC official told Arab News. “The situation was becoming more difficult and complex,“ the official said.
In effect, this means that AFC will need to draw out a schedule that allows for the home and away format in 2021. However, they will hope they can stage the matches as soon as possible because the 2022 World Cup is fast approaching and the third round of World Cup qualifiers is yet to start.
The second round, ongoing right now, was set to finish in June 2020 and the third round was to have started in September 2020. What this means is that 2021 is set to be an extremely packed calendar for many countries including India. Though the Blue Tigers will not be participating in the third round of World Cup qualifiers, they will have the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers, which will run parallel, to worry about.
UEFA have already made it clear that they will add more international matchdays in 2021 to make up for the delays in 2020. AFC will also have no choice but to do the same.
The 2020-21 Indian football season also has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it. As of now, both the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League are set to kick-off somewhere around November at centralised venues.
India would hope that the World Cup qualifiers are not rescheduled in the first two or three months of 2021 because the ISL and I-League are likely to be running during this time.
Not only does such a scenario disrupt the two competitions' scheduling but also is likely to break up the bio-secure environments that are being planned for the safety of the players of the staff.
We are not even considering the continental club competitions. The 2020 AFC Cup is set to resume in the last week of October but with large chunk of the competition yet to be played, there is every chance it also might stretch into early 2021. Then, of course, there is the 2021 AFC Champions League and AFC Cup, for which three Indian clubs have qualified - ATK Mohun Bagan, FC Goa and Bengaluru FC.
Those matches generally start around February and March. It remains to be seen when that will start. All in all, the postponement of the World Cup qualifiers due to the pandemic has thrown up a lot of disconcerting questions.