It seems like there is a real possibility that India’s remaining three 2022 World Cup qualifying fixtures could be played at a centralised venue.

Given that the Coronavirus has affected each country on a different scale, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) would be considering holding the remaining matches at centralised venues in each of the groups.

It could well see matches in each group being played at one venue in one of the countries in that group. India are in Group E alongside Asian champions Qatar, Oman, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

China, who are in Group A alongside the likes of Syria, Philippines, Maldives and Guam, have already indicated that it might be the case.

The Chinese FA have staked a claim to host the remaining matches in Group A if AFC decides to go with the centralised venue plan. Three of China’s four remaining games are at home and the Chinese FA do not want to play them away from home.

The Chinese FA chairman Chen Xuyuan, in an interview, said, “Considering the epidemic, foreign national teams coming to China to play in the World Cup qualifiers would have to be quarantined for 14 days each time, which is not feasible.

“FIFA may suggest playing the tournament in a third country, but we definitely won’t agree to it, because it means our home advantage is gone. We can’t rule out the possibility of the World Cup qualifiers adopting the tournament system, then we have the chance to host the tournament. That would allow for a full closure (bio-safety bubble) to begin when the foreign national team arrives at the airport, as per the experience of the CSL’s prevention.”

Dominic Tan, Malaysia U23 v China U23, AFC U23 Championship qualifier, 26 Mar 2019

Dominic Tan, Malaysia U23 v China U23, AFC U23 Championship qualifier, 26 Mar 2019

It must be noted that the Chinese Super League (CSL) season started in centralised venues last week with tight bio-safety protocols, making their case stronger.

The tentative schedule (on a home-and-away basis) worked out by the AFC earlier will need to altered, if the continental body decides to go along with such a move.

According to this schedule, India were set to host Qatar on October 8 before facing Bangladesh away from home on November 12. Their last group stage fixture against Afghanistan was set to be played on November 17 at home.

These dates were subject to how the Coronavirus situation unfolded across Asia and the travel regulations, as applicable to each country. However, given the increase in number of cases in many countries, AFC might end up tweaking the dates and changing the venues.

AFC general secretary Dato Windsor had earlier in second week of June said that AFC will only confirm the match schedule (Asian World Cup qualifiers) when they are more certain about the Covid-19 situation.

Dato Windsor AFC General Secretary

Dato Windsor AFC General Secretary

“At the moment, FIFA have approved the last four days of round two in October and November 2020,” he said. “We are still monitoring the situation in each country and will cross the bridge when we come to it.”

The number of cases in India and Bangladesh is currently rising, with India seeing upward of 50000 positive cases per day. Afghanistan do not play their home games any which way in their country. Bangladesh saw 30000 cases in a day recently.

That leaves Qatar and Oman as viable countries to host the remaining matches in Group E that involves India. Oman are preparing to re-start their league in three weeks. The Qatar Stars League (QSL) had restarted behind closed doors on July 24 after it was suspended back in March, which should help if AFC decides to follow such a move.

If this is the case, all the games will be played in one shot together rather than in October and November as per the current schedule.

AFC has already done something similar with its club tournaments – the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup. Each group in the tournament is being played at a centralised venue. For example, in Group E of the AFC Cup, the remaining five rounds will be completed in Maldives with Indian representatives Chennai City set to travel to the Island nation in October.

It must be noted that the AFC had asked the member associations if the tournament can be held in their respective countries. Bangladesh and India both did not bid for the same, given the current Covid-19 conditions. So, it seems unlikely that India and Bangladesh might be able to host the World Cup qualifiers if AFC chooses to approach them.

Most countries are in a difficult predicament. As per the current situation, Malaysia will find it hard to play their away match in UAE (Oct 8) and then play a home match five days later (Oct 13 against Vietnam). The protocols in Malaysia dictate that the those coming in from abroad have to quarantine themselves for 14 days which might jeopardise their second match.

In such a situation, going along with centralised venues in each group might be the most feasible solution that the AFC have at their disposal.

In Group C, Iran are set to start their training camp on August 27 and are potential hosts for the matches left to be played in their group. Japan in Group F, UAE and Vietnam in Group G and South Korea in Group H are all potential hosts, given the manageable situations (Covid-19) in the respective nations.

India are currently placed fourth in Group E with three points from five matches. Qatar top the table with 13 points while Oman are hot on their heels with 12. India are virtually out of contention for the top two spots but a third-place finish is well within the reach of the Blue Tigers. That will book them a direct berth in the third round for the 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers. 

India lost narrowly to Oman at home before pulling holding Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw. The inspiring result was followed by two more draws and a loss against Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Oman respectively.