The Middle-East nation had already played hosts to the West Zone matches of the continent’s premier club competition….
When Qatar was declared as the host by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the East Zone matches of the 2020 AFC Champions League and the final as well, not many would have been left surprised.
Qatar’s meticulous planning and execution while hosting the West Asian matches of the elite continental club competition from 14 September to 3rd October meant there was a certain inevitability about the East Zone matches being held in Doha too.
Amid a global pandemic that had virtually stalled the sport, AFC were finding it tough to complete their club and national team competitions. As a result, the 2020 AFC Cup (the secondary club competition) was scrapped altogether while the international window had to be postponed beyond 2020.
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However, the 2020 AFC Champions League was its flagship club competition and the AFC wanted it completed within the year in order to ensure the 2021 calendar is not affected. It was also necessary for the financial health of the game in Asia to complete the continent’s premier club competition.
Around 40 matches had to be staged in the West Zone leg of the AFC Champions League with most of the group stage matches yet to take place when the pandemic halted the competition. The AFC had a challenge on their hands. And it was Qatar who rose to meet it.
In line with what the top European competitions including the UEFA Champions League had done, Qatar established Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and protocols to implement a bio-secure bubble for the players and officials alike.
The measures were strict and included mandatory Covid-19 testing, safe transportation, regular sanitisation of all venues, training and media facilities, as well as the presence of medical staff throughout the competition.
Movement outside the bubble was restricted for players and staff and social distancing procedures like wearing masks, utilising sanitisers and limited capacity transportation were all strictly enforced.
It was not all smooth sailing though, as there was the odd instance where the dreaded virus managed to sneak in. Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal were deemed to have withdrawn from the competition under Article 4.3 of Special Rules Applicable to AFC Competitions after the club failed to name the required 13 players for their Group B match against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai.
It must be noted that during the West Zone tournament, Qatar carried out more than 7900 Covid-19 tests, with the positive rate being only 1.7 per cent.
However fool-proof the safety precautions are, one must also recognise the difficulty in containing Covid-19 that has seeped into every corner of the world. Recently, Cristiano Ronaldo also tested positive for the virus in Europe despite being in a secure bio-bubble for the UEFA Nations League.
Apart from the safety aspect, the infrastructure was a cut above the rest, and in many ways, gave the world a glimpse of the facilities that will be on offer during the 2022 World Cup. Three of the four venues used for the tournament were built for the 2022 World Cup – the Khalifa International (refurbished), Al Janoub and Education City stadiums.
The cutting-edge technology including the Advanced Cooling Tech utilised in these venues wowed the players and coaches alike.
At one point during the tournament, eventual West Zone champions Persepolis’ players were spotted wrapping themselves with blankets to deal with the cool weather inside the stadium while the September mercury levels soared outside.
“It has been an amazing experience to play in all three completed World Cup stadiums. Especially the pitches and the air-conditioning were very good,” South Korean midfielder Nam Tae-Hee, who plays for Qatar’s Al Sadd SC, told Goal as he prepared for the West Zone matches.
During the West Zone matches of the 2020 AFC Champions League, Walid Abbas, UAE-based Shabab Al-Ahli’s defensive mainstay, was also effusive in his praise for the facilities in Qatar.
“The stadiums are modern and unlike any we’ve seen elsewhere (especially the cooling technology). The infrastructure is well developed and I believe the country is ready to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022,” he said at a press conference after Shabab Al Ahli’s 0-0 draw against Pakhtakor at the Al Janoub stadium.
All this brings back to the AFC Champions League. Now while Persepolis wait to find out who would win the East Zone tournament and meet them in the grand final, also to be hosted in Doha, the East Zone matches had not taken place after March.
The AFC had to act quickly and this is where Qatar happily stepped up to the plate again.
As QFA General Secretary Mansoor Al Ansari noted, “Qatar knows how important football is for Asia and so is pleased to be able to offer the world-class sporting infrastructure and operational health and safety expertise that exists in the country to allow for the resumption of competitive continental football once again.”
“I would like to thank Qatar Football Association for hosting the matches in tough times,” Avazbek Berdikulov, Deputy Director of Competitions and Footballs Events Division, AFC, had said in the run-up to the West Zone tournament.
“We understand that Qatar put in a lot of efforts to organise this. We thank them for their professional role. After postponing the matches, the AFC agreed on new dates. Once we agreed on the dates, we opened the process to reschedule matches and decide on host venues. Qatar came up with a nice proposal.”
No doubt the AFC had the easy choice of organising the East Zone matches in Qatar too, to be held from 18 November to 13 December 2020. The 2022 World Cup hosts have turned into a premier footballing destination in the continent.