Bafetimbi Gomis has begged organisers to not “break our dream” after coronavirus infections within the Al Hilal camp saw the holders kicked out of the 2020 AFC Champions League because they were only able to select 11 players – including three goalkeepers – for their last Group B match.
More than 30 players and staff have returned positive tests, with at least four recoveries, since the stricken 2019/20 Saudi Professional League victors landed in Doha for the resumed West Zone, running from September 14-October 3. This number included ex-France centre forward Gomis, former Italy playmaker Sebastian Giovinco and flying Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari.
The escalating problem for the then section leaders – who thought they’d secured a round-of-16 spot in match-day five – reached its crescendo for Wednesday night’s date with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club when they could not reach the minimum requirements contained in the governing body’s rulebook of 13 players, including one shot stopper. This caused the match to be forfeited and all previous results cancelled, sending the UAE side and Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor through instead.
A war of words developed between the two parties, with the AFC and Hilal’s board of directors releasing contrasting statements. The Saudi giants decried a, perceived, lack of flexibility and stated further action was being considered, with Arriyadiyah newspaper subsequently reporting an intention to file a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
“The board of directors would like to… demonstrate the circumstances that Al Hilal is currently going through during the AFC Champions League in a centralised venue; following COVID-19 outbreak and reaching more than 30 active cases,” Hilal claimed.
“The board of directors has also clarified that they sought to work on a number of methods that preserve Al Hilal’s right to compete without any disorder to the tournament.
“But all these requests were rejected by the AFC, in spite of facing compelling circumstances that require greater flexibility.
“The board of directors stated that they are studying submitting a memorandum of protest to the judicial authorities which is to preserve the club’s rights at the official authorities.
“The board of directors has expressed pride in the great responsibility that Al Hilal players have taken since confirming the first COVID-19 case in the team.”
Solutions included the postponement of Hilal matches by one day to allow more time for recoveries, postponement of the knockout stages and forfeiting the Shabab Al Ahli match, but remaining in the tournament.
They also stated Article 4.3 of the Special Rules Applicable to AFC Competitions During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which necessitates the 13-man selection, “violates the basic law of the game issued by FIFA which states that the match can be played between two teams that have 11 players maximum, including a goalkeeper”.
These words came in response to the AFC’s earlier announcement that Hilal were “deemed to have withdrawn from the competition”.
They declared the Riyadh-outfit, rather than bring a full complement of 35 players, “registered 30 of which only 27 travelled to Doha in the beginning of the Competition”. They also “allowed the addition of two goalkeepers to replace those who had tested positive for COVID-19”.
🚨 BREAKING 🚨
— #ACL2020 (@TheAFCCL) September 23, 2020
The AFC insisted they had “maintained an open line of communication with the club and the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF)”, while “a postponement would have a huge negative impact on the current match schedule of the AFC Champions League (West) and so no exception was granted”.
At the tournament, itself, one Al Duhail player returned a positive test result before the first games and head coach Shota Arveladze was unable to oversee Pakhtakor’s deciding pool fixtures versus Shahr Khodro after he did the same.
Strict medical protocols have been put in place for the unprecedented blitz through the West’s commitments, from four remaining pool matches left unfulfilled by March’s shutdown until next month’s semi-final. These include tests every three-six days and limiting movement within a ‘medical bubble’.
Shabab Al Ahli now face Group A winners Al Ahli Jeddah on Saturday. Group B winners Pakhtakor play Iran’s Esteghlal on the same night.
The East Zone has been pushed back to November 15-December 13 from a proposed mid-October resumption. A one-legged final, rather than the usual two-legged affair, will be played in the West on December 19.
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