Is AFC trying too hard to tick-off responsibilities, but at what expense?

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Indian athletes not allowed to travel overseas owing to the recent surge in Covid-19 cases in the country. However, the apex football body has decided to carry on with the AFC Cup, which has two Indian clubs, in the Maldives, a country that has requested to postpone the matches.

Empty stands, centralised venues, bio-bubbles - football has been robbed off its charm over the last year, however, for FC Goa fans, the 2020-21 AFC Champions League was a monumental occasion. Even though the games missed a breathing stadium, especially with all the matches held in the city, the spirited display in their maiden appearance has balanced everything out. For the first time in a while, Indian football fans collectively greeted the way an ISL club – was making top Asian teams sweat out to register a win.

However, towards the end of the Group E matches, the unanimous focus shifted to a catastrophic one, with the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic hitting India like a tsunami. However, with the bio-bubbles in place, the AFC managed to pull off the remaining games, even though it coincided with the steep surge in Covid-19 cases. FC Goa finished third in the group stages and was eventually knocked out. However, two Indian clubs are yet to kick-start their respective Asian football campaigns.

Following a similar laid down the path; the AFC Cup ties were also slated for neutralised venues. ATK-Mohun Bagan had already qualified for the group stages of the tournament, while Bengaluru FC had to cross a couple of regulatory hurdles to make it into the group stages. Either way, both sides are supposed to visit the Maldives, a small island country off the coast of the Arabian Sea, for their upcoming fixtures. Usually, it’s not a big issue, with the two nations on friendly terms.

However, these are testing times. The fact that most Indian athletes are not being allowed to step inside foreign territories is an alarming situation. Taking a cue from similar circumstances, it should have seen the Maldives government look at the bigger picture, especially with the number of cases in the coastal country rapidly rising. For instance, just 82 positive cases were reported on April 16, along with a seven-day average of 84. However, their numbers have since skyrocketed, with 734 new infections reported on May 5.

Quite justifiably, the Maldives FA were concerned regarding the same and letting in players from one of the worst affected countries in the world doesn’t help their case either. Ahmed Mahloof, Maldives' Minister for Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment, confirmed that they were in talks with the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) regarding the same. After much speculation that some concrete decision might surface, the apex body turned a deaf ear and announced that the matches would go on as scheduled. Now, who saw that coming?

To add some context, Indian badminton players have been disallowed by the Malaysian government to take part in the Malaysia Open, while the visas of Indian archers have been rejected by the Swiss Embassy, which meant they won’t be part of the World Cup Stage 2. Why have both countries taken this step? Because of the rise in COVID-19 cases in India.

But the kicker is that in both the above cases, the outcome is far more consequential, with a berth at the Tokyo Olympics at stake. With due respect to each sport, football has also faced the atrocities of the pandemic and they’ve managed to work a way out. 

But, how is it fair that AFC is forcefully trying to tick-mark their calendar off, with lives at stake? Bangladesh’s Dhaka Abahani Limited have already withdrawn from the continental event, in wake of the rising number of Covid-19 cases, which is a sensible move. It was yet another indication to the Asian governing body that the matches should have been postponed, if not cancelled, considering the spike in the region. Moreover, the Tokyo government might also reconsider their decision to stage the Games, with the local people already echoing the tunes of skipping the spectacle once again to save lives in the land of the rising sun.

Bengaluru FC have already reached Maldives and started with their practice sessions © BFC Media

Even if the matches go as per routine, ATK-Mohun Bagan will see themselves field a depleted team, with their star striker Roy Krishna doubtful, after the Fijian government imposed a travel ban, while Australian David Williams is also unlikely to make his way to the Maldives. To pile even more onto what is a really miserable situation, their custodian Arindam Bhattacharya won’t fly with the team but will stay beside his mother, who has contracted Covid-19. As per the latest reports, Sheikh Sahil and Prabir Das have also tested positive, while the team might also take a U-turn in the 11th hour.

However, Bengaluru FC have already arrived in the Maldives and have already started their practice sessions, with them set to face local side Eagles FC in the playoff, on May 11. In spite of everyone dancing to the tune, AFC cannot take things for granted, as there’s an alternative to every situation. As we speak, UEFA are considering moving the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea from Istanbul, owing to the situation in Turkey and the UK placing the country on their travel red list. It clearly indicates that the priorities have been set, but AFC is too reluctant to accept the reality and is living in a world of its own. 

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