The good mood in Iran is likely to have long since vanished. It’s been two months since Tehran’s top club Persepolis FC beat Al Nassr FC from Saudi Arabia 5-3. It was the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League, and the entry into the final is one of the greatest successes in the history of Iran’s record champions. Since then, they have been waiting for the big game with which they could crown themselves as the best team in Asia for the first time. Or not anymore. Because the air is somehow out.
Asia’s premier class in 2020 is probably the strangest continental tournament that has ever taken place. Because hardly any competition that has not been completely canceled is so severely affected by the corona pandemic as this one, of all places, which extends over by far the largest part of the planet. National champions and top clubs from ten time zones – from Syria to Australia – compete against each other. Culturally, most of the countries have nothing in common except for the more or less arbitrary division into the giant continent of Asia.
Not even the pandemic created common ground, on the contrary. The competition, which is divided into east and west tournament trees on the way to the final, has been postponed this year. The western part, which includes the Arab countries and Central Asia, resumed the game after the season started in February and the early corona-related interruption in September. The eastern part, which includes Southeast Asia and parts of Oceania, only started playing again last week. You’re still in the group stage.
A compact game plan allows the Eastern clubs to catch up in turbo speed. While many leagues at home are in the final spurt of the season, the international teams are playing a fast season on Qatari soil. Since the end of November, all of the remaining group matches up to the semi-finals have been played there within three weeks. On December 19th, the most successful team there will meet Persepolis FC, the finalists from the Westbaum.
Not everyone is happy with this shape. In the east, clubs are complaining about the now very tight schedule, which is also causing distortions in their own leagues. There are also reservations about security. Kim Doo-hoon, coach of the footballers from Ulsan in South Korea, where the virus is relatively well under control, recently said: “Many of my players are worried about the corona virus, and there is great pressure because of this disease.”
On the other hand, the concentrated stay in Qatar also has advantages, says Kenta Hasegawa, coach of FC Tokyo: “In a centralized tournament like this we don’t have to travel.” Probably the biggest difference to the Champions League in Europe.
But you are particularly angry in the western half of the competition, which was pulled through much faster and where the calendar also made great sacrifices. In addition to Al Wahda from the United Arab Emirates, another club was disqualified from gaming, which could hardly have been more prominent. The defending champion Al-Hilal from Saudi Arabia had to retire during the group stage, although the team had been given a chance to win again.
The reason for the disqualification: At the beginning of the scheduled game round for the West Tree, which also took place in Qatar, a total of 31 people in the club had tested positive for Covid-19. Al-Hilal was only able to report eleven healthy players, including three goalkeepers. According to the tournament rules, at least 13 players should have come. “In Europe there is a clear procedure whereby games can be canceled or postponed in such cases,” complained Al-Hilal’s coach Roman Lazvan at the end of September. In a long statement, the club demanded that the decision be withdrawn. But the Asian Football Conference, the responsible continental association, stuck to its decision.
The title win this year doesn’t count and has been blasphemed ever since. In any case, it will remain distorted competition until the end. The final on December 19 will also take place in Qatar, in the al-Janoub Stadium, which will also be one of the venues during the 2022 World Cup. And whoever has prevailed in the east tree of the Champions League by then will be relatively well acclimatized to the circumstances on site. The long-established final participant from the west, Persepolis FC, is then probably no longer in the juice.