KUALA LUMPUR • Saudi giants Al Hilal accused Asia’s football body of inflexibility yesterday after the coronavirus-hit title holders were kicked out of the AFC Champions League for failing to field enough players.
Al Hilal last week managed to send a squad for the restart of Asia’s showpiece club tournament following a six-month hiatus, but 30 of their players and staff have now contracted the virus.
The side could only name 11 players for Wednesday’s group-stage match in Doha against Shabab Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), rather than the required 13, prompting the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to eject them.
Al Hilal, who had qualified for the last 16, said they tried their best to remain in the tournament.
“The board of directors… sought to work on a number of methods that preserve Al Hilal’s right to compete without any disorder to the tournament,” the club said. “But all these requests were rejected (despite) compelling circumstances that require greater flexibility from the AFC.”
Al Hilal had suggested their match be postponed and also called for the knockout stages, due to begin on Sunday, to be delayed. They had also offered to forfeit their match against Shabab, but not their place in the tournament.
Announcing the decision, the AFC said it had rejected the request for a postponement as it “would have a huge negative impact” on the match schedule.
Officials are rushing to complete the competition before the end of the year, with a single-legged final now due to take place on Dec 19.
Asked whether they were concerned about the growing number of cases, the AFC said they had taken sufficient precautions at the Qatar hub where West Asia group matches are being staged.
“Bio-secure bubbles” had been created for players and staff and they were being regularly tested, while new bubbles had been set up for the media and security officials, the body said.
“There has been no transmission of Covid-19 between two competing teams throughout the matches,” it added in a statement.
“AFC will continue to do everything in its power to minimise the transmission of Covid-19.”
Al Hilal drew 0-0 against Iran’s Shahr Khodro on Sunday, with coach Razvan Lucescu calling up players from the youth team as substitutes. Al Wahda’s campaign also ended in the group stage due to Covid-19 as the UAE side failed to travel to Qatar after several positive tests.