AFC Champions League – West Zone tournament offers important lessons for football world during COVID-19 era
The AFC Champions League – West Zone matches, which were recently held in Qatar from 14 September to 3 October, marked the successful return of football in Asia following its suspension in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fifteen teams from Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan competed over 36 matches for a spot in the final of the continent’s most prestigious club competition. The matches were played across four venues, three of which will be used during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
The Local Organising Committee (LOC) worked closely with local medical authorities, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and the Qatar Football Association (QFA) to put in place a robust bubble-to-bubble bio framework that enabled the safe participation of teams, officials and LOC staff. Although football leagues and sporting events have been slowly returning to stadiums and arenas around the world, the return of the AFC Champions League was the first continental football competition to feature group stage matches.
The system put in place ensured all participants remained safely isolated in a manner that enabled them to participate in all aspects of the tournament. The movement of players, officials and LOC staff was restricted only to and from designated accommodation, stadiums and training sites. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, individuals under the same ‘medical bubble’ were not permitted to make contact with anyone outside their bubble.
Further measures included mandatory COVID-19 testing on arrival in Qatar and throughout the tournament, safe transportation methods, regular disinfection of all tournament venues, including training and media facilities, as well as the provision of medical staff in stadiums throughout the competition.
Over 20 days, more than 7,900 tests were administered on players, officials and across the tournament workforce. Tests were repeated every three to six days, as a means to allow for early detection and intervention. The result was a positivity rate of just 1.7 percent. A daily analysis of all tournament competition and non-competition venues was conducted to allow for swift mitigation of any positive cases to stop the spread of the virus.
Dr. Abdul Wahab Al Musleh, Advisor to the Minister of Public Health of Qatar on Sports Affairs, which led the safety initiative, said: “The AFC Champions League was a sizeable tournament, with the number of teams participating being almost half the number that will partake in the FIFA World Cup 2022. While we hope that the pandemic resolves in the coming months, the success we achieved with hosting the AFC Champions League has given us a further boost of confidence that we will be able to welcome both fans and players in any mega sporting events in the lead up to 2022, and the World Cup itself, in two years’ time.”
To ensure that the bubble-to-bubble model was effectively implemented, the tournament’s LOC distributed around 24,000 masks and 640 litres of bottled sanitiser in various sizes. Additionally, 78 compliance inspections were made to training sites, stadiums and hotels.
AFC Deputy Director of Competitions and Football Events Division, Avazbek Berdikulov, spoke about the choice to resume the competition in Qatar. “In addition to the safety measures put in place, there were three key components of any successful tournament that Qatar was able to provide to the highest standards,” Berdikulov said. “They were world-class stadiums, training grounds and accommodation. Seeing these facilities first-hand gives us full confidence that Qatar will excel in hosting the FIFA World Cup 2022.”
“In particular, players and coaches alike were very pleased with the innovative cooling technology used in stadiums, where despite the outside temperature being 39C, the matches were being played in ideal conditions of approximately 22C,” he added.
The tournament was also an important milestone in Qatar’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup™, as it utilised Al Janoub, Khalifa International and Education City stadiums; providing an opportunity to test the operational plans of these venues and ensure their readiness for football’s showpiece event in 2022.
It also introduced players, some of whom may return to Qatar in 2022 to compete in the World Cup with their national teams, to the compact nature of the tournament’s hosting concept. Teams were able to stay in the same accommodation throughout the tournament, utilise the same training grounds and experience minimal travel times between venues.
In addition to the use of three Qatar 2022 stadiums, participating teams also experienced some of the training sites that will be used by the world’s leading football teams during the tournament. The training sites are outfitted with an array of facilities, including FIFA-compliant floodlit natural grass pitches, gyms, media facilities and other state-of-the-art infrastructure.
The resumption of the AFC Champions League also provided an opportunity for volunteers to develop their skills ahead of Qatar 2022. The Tournament Readiness division of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) joined forces with the SC’s education and training arm, Josoor Institute, to develop and deliver a training programme that helped volunteers deliver a first-class competition.
The training programme was the first in a series of formal training programs that Tournament Readiness and Josoor Institute will carry out over the next two years. The first session in the programme focused on volunteer team leaders, with the follow-up session being targeted at the main event volunteers. Prior to kick-off on 14 September, volunteers visited all four stadiums and conducted venue and role specific training on site.
The West Zone tournament concluded with Iran’s Persepolis FC defeating Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr FC to qualify for this year’s AFC Champions League final, with the winner of the western region playing their counterpart from the eastern zone.
Following the successful staging of the AFC Champions League – West Zone competition, the AFC handed Qatar the responsibility of hosting the remaining matches in the AFC Champions League – East Zone from 18 November to 13 December. This will include the resumption of the group stage that was paused by the COVID-19 pandemic back in March and continue through the round of 16 to the quarter-finals and semi-finals. The 2020 AFC Champions League final will be played on 19 December at a venue that is yet to be confirmed.