The decision by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to kick out defending champions Al Hilal from the Asian Champions League may just be an indication of how sports organisations are increasingly putting the health and well-being of athletes ahead of monetary gains.
Al-Hilal had named only 11 players for their final group game with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai yesterday after a majority of their team players tested positive for Covid-19.
Both Al Hilal and the Saudi Arabia Football Federation requested a postponement owing to “exceptional circumstances” but the AFC said that would have had a “huge negative impact” on the competition schedule “and so no exception was granted”.
Al Hilal won the title last season, defeating Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in the final.
As a result of Al Hilal’s forfeiture, Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai have progressed to the Round of 16 from Group B.
The team had had traveled to Qatar on September 11 to complete the tournament, however in the subsequent days the majority of the squad tested positive for the virus.
Al Hilal narrowly avoided sanction when they named a squad of 14 for their penultimate match on Sunday. Still the team had managed to draw their match against Iran’s Shahr Khodro to book their place in the knockout stage. That is until their hard earned spot was yanked away for their failure to have more players as per the AFC rules.
According to the AFC, a total of 13 players must be named in the squad for a club to participate.
“If a participating team or club has less than 13 players (including one goalkeeper) available for a match for any reason (whether or not relating to Covid-19), the relevant club shall not be able to participate in the match,” the AFC said in a statement.
“Such a participating team or club shall be held responsible for the match not taking place and shall be considered to have withdrawn from the relevant competition. The relevant participating team or club and its affiliated member association shall be subject to the provisions of the relevant competition regulations, as applicable.”
It is all in the rules and would be appreciated and easily accepted in normal circumstances, but we are in the midst of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
While the AFC can rely on the rules, the fact remains that the decision was taken because any delay would disrupt the tournament and would result in financial loss for the AFC as well as the organisers
So did the AFC jump the gun by wanting to host the tournament too quickly, after all the daily average of new cases in Qatar since August has been in excess of 200. While it was much lower than the daily average of almost 2000 in late March, the number of cases was still a matter of concern.
It is no different with how the Badminton World Federation (BWF) were trying to get the Thomas-Uber Cup Finals in Denmark off the ground despite the increasing number of new cases in the country.
In England, their football league is in full swing but with a number of players from Leyton Orient being tested positive for Covid-19, their Carabao Cup match against Tottenham Hotspurs was called off.
Unlike the AFC, the English Football League (EFL) were not restricted by time and could afford to postpone the game. But it was still cutting it too close as there is little room to rearrange the tie, with the fourth round of the EFL Cup scheduled to take place next week.
To add to the EFL problems they now have to contend with further financial loss with the British government confirming that all sports events will have to go without spectators at the stadiums until April next year.
Is sports coming back too soon? If there a need to slow down and stop worrying about the quick return of sports right now?
Take the French Open tennis for an example. The organisers announced that five players have been withdrawn from the qualifying tournament after two players and a coach tested positive for Covid-19.
The tournament is being held at a time when there is an uptick in the number of new Covid-19 cases in France. Two years ago, the number of new cases in the European nation was 13,072.
Bosnian Damir Dzumhur was disqualified from the event after his coach returned with a coronavirus positive test. Dzumhur, frustrated that his coach Petar Popovic was not allowed a second test, is contemplating legal action.
Dzumhur, ranked 107 in the world, went on to say that top ranked players like Rafael Nadal would have been given a different treatment
“They don’t want to deprive themselves of the best players. It’s much easier to do that to a lower-ranked player. It is unfair,” Dzumhur was quoted by the local media.
We cannot afford to be pretend, like US President Donald Trump, that the virus is not dangerous or that most of us were immune to it.
There is no denying that many crave for sports to return. But it should be done at the right time, when we have vaccine in place and when we don’t when we don’t have to keep stopping because the coronavirus continues to ravage.
Sports organisations can try to come up with strategies and operating procedures to resume play amid the pandemic, but there’s no guarantee it would be successful.
There is no denying that sports organisations and leagues have lost millions due to the pandemic. In US alone the financial loss from the absence of sports during the pandemic was estimated to be in excess of USD12 billion.
There is also no denying that many have lost their jobs in the sports industry all over the world, but that has hardly affected the professional teams. Even in Malaysia some sports administrators and coaches have been taking home high five-figure incomes per month just as other in sports industry are forced to labour through this pandemic with practically no income.
But with the pandemic dragging on for so long as it has been, there has been non-stop clamouring from sports, especially at the elite level that sports must be resumed as soon as possible.
The Covid-19 has continued to confound the medical experts and plans seems only better on paper than in person.
While some events including the Diamond League athletics has been positive in terms of keeping the virus at a safe distance others have failed miserably.
Restarting sports is also seen as putting players at risk and sending the wrong message to the man in the street.
Many do not see the effort and money spent behind the scene in ensuring that sports is safe during the pandemic. So much rapid testing is being done on a regular basis for the athletes and people assume tat just wearing a mask and social distancing alone is enough to eradicate the virus.
The Covid-19 is here to stay, perhaps for a longer time than all of want to, and rushing into it head-on without understanding the long term implications on our health, is certainly not the way forward. Neither is making the decision entirely based on financial returns to the sports.
No one can guarantee what the new normal is sports is going to be. Like how the virus seems to be mutating, we need to look at ways to adjust and adapt on how we approach, conduct and participate in sports.