An imminent postponement of World Cup qualifiers could pave the way for more domestic fixtures as the Premier League races to finish its season.
Officials from the Asian Football Confederation met with FIFA on Thursday to discuss their response to “heightened health concerns and ever extending travel restrictions around the spreading of COVID-19,” as was promised in an AFC statement published Monday. Although FIFA’s own statement today declared that an update on the postponement of upcoming matches in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers would be provided in the “coming days”, it is believed that this is a fait accompli.
The Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) released a statement of their own – hours before FIFA’s statement – which confirmed that Indonesia’s World Cup qualifiers for March and June would be postponed until October and November respectively. PSSI chief Mochamad Iriawan said in the statement that the AFC sent a letter to all member associations on Tuesday – a day after the March 2 emergency meeting – notifying them of the results.
Freelance journalist Paul Murphy leaked the details of the proposed postponement.
A proposal to postpone this month’s and June’s WCQs to be discussed by AFC, with new dates suggested pic.twitter.com/9HR0LP3Sr7
— Paulmurphy (@PaulmurphyBKK) March 5, 2020
If the document is correct, Hong Kong’s three remaining Second Round World Cup qualifiers would be rescheduled as follows:
- @ Iran – originally scheduled for March 26 → postponed to October 8
- vs Iraq – originally scheduled for March 31 → postponed to October 13
- @ Bahrain – originally scheduled for June 9 → postponed to November 17
Crucially, it would allow the HKFA some “flexibility” to alleviate part of its backlog of Premier League matches as CEO Paul Woodland hoped.
Earlier in the week, the HKFA reached an agreement with the government to reopen Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground for closed door matches. On Tuesday, the organization released a schedule of eight cup matches and one league match to be played at the stadium this month. That schedule is poised to be expanded should FIFA confirm the postponement of March’s international fixtures.
If Hong Kong’s match versus Iraq is postponed for October, it is unlikely that the HKFA would succeed in moving the match to Hong Kong Stadium. Although the national team prefers the venue over Mong Kok Stadium, the rescheduled Hong Kong Sevens are due to take place over the weekend of October 16-18.
Paatelainen: Situation not ideal but presents an opportunity
Speaking after the Rangers-Eastern match on Saturday, national team head coach Mixu Paatelainen said that a postponement would not be ideal.
“If there are no games in March, that would be disappointing because the team needs more time together on the pitch in order to improve,” he said of the situation. “It has been a long time since December (when the team last played). It would be bad if there was a half year until the next matches in June.”
Paatelainen, however, saw a positive if World Cup qualifiers were postponed. Up to six newly naturalized players could be in line to receive their first call ups to the national team if qualifiers were delayed beyond June.
These players include Eastern’s Diego Eli, R&F’s Sean Tse and Matt Lam, Tai Po’s Michel Lugo, as well as Kitchee duo Wellingsson and Fernando. Of the six, only Eli has received his Hong Kong passport while Tse’s application is awaiting approval.
“If there are matches in the fall, of course it is a good thing if talented players apply for a passport,” said the manager.
“At the same time, if local players improve, that would be better. Because even if naturalized players join, we cannot forget about the young players.
“(Young players) are the future of the team.”
Regarding future matches, Woodland said that if the June international window is open and if the epidemic situation eases, the HKFA would try to schedule some friendlies during the window. Paatelainen hoped that at the very least, the team will gather in June for a training camp but said that he understood that finishing the league season is the top priority.
Update (March 9): FIFA has officially postponed all qualifiers scheduled for March and June to later dates. Their statement in part reads:
Following consultation with Asia’s member associations, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have agreed to postpone the upcoming Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ as follows:
- Matches originally scheduled to take place during the international window of 23-31 March 2020 and 1-9 June 2020 are postponed to later dates
- FIFA and the AFC will discuss further details of the postponed matches
However, in order to support the member associations concerned, and provided that the safety of all individuals involved meets the required standards and that the member associations due to play each other mutually agree, the match(es) may still be played during the international windows of March or June 2020, but always subject to prior approval from both FIFA and the AFC.