Tehran Times - The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has chosen Bahrain as host of FIFA World Cup qualifiers in Group C and the decision is a clear favoritism which has deeply wounded 85-million ardent football fans in Iran.
Thursday, 11th March marked the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 a global pandemic. On making that dramatic announcement, WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom emphasized that “Pandemic” was not a word to use lightly or carelessly.
With that announcement life as we knew it, changed. One-third of the whole world went into lockdown. What did not deem essential came to a complete halt, with sports and football amongst those.
All forms of domestic and international football at all levels stopped. The Asian Football Confederation’s joint FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 / AFC Asian Cup China 2023 matches, scheduled on the two FIFA dates in March 2020 were put on ice. The AFC has since tried to reschedule the last four rounds of their eight qualifying groups to no avail and lost 12 FIFA dates, including the March 2021 window.
The continent’s governing body decided to consult with its member associations in mid-February to make a “collective decision” to wrap up the first-round group stage in a centralized format in June to tackle travel restrictions for national teams crisscrossing Asia.
However, the Iranian football fans were weary of this decision as even ahead of the official AFC announcement of matches to be played centrally, they had seen messages across Arabic social media platforms that Bahrain had secured the rights to host the final eight matches in Group C, an act of utter injustice if it were to materialize.
Iran along with other seeded teams had played three away games and one home game against the lowest-seeded team in their group. If Australia, China, Japan, Korea Republic, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates could secure the approval of their own country’s health authorities, they would be designated as hosts, by virtue of the spirit of “Fair Play”.
Much to the horror of the Iranian fans, AFC handed over the hosting rights to their rivals, Bahrain, under the pretext of sanctions and the fact that AFC and their commercial partners would not be able to operate in Iran, a completely false pretext. The rights of this stage of the qualifiers in Asia, as per AFC’s own directive belong to each host nation and as such they had no commercial function at any of the 97 matches, including Iran’s home tie against Cambodia in October 2019, and will not have any business to conduct in the remaining 63 matches of the first round group stage.
Of the eight seeded nations, six have secured their hosting rights, but not Iran and Australia. The Australian authorities did not sanction the staging of Group B in their country either.
The Iranian fans, who had feared that this decision would be made in the dark corridors of power and away from the proper due diligence, have proven right. The Iranian football authorities alerted AFC of their concerns that they would be the only seeded team not receiving the hosting rights, based on credible evidence. The AFC did not respond to their letter of Sunday, March 7. Tasnim News Agency who had followed online chatters also sent a query to AFC’s Media department for a comment. Neither the federation nor the news agency received even an acknowledgment, let alone a proper response.
Was AFC’s so-called “consultation process” with their member associations in mid-February just a show? It seems to have been. Next time the AFC displays that “Fair Play” flag at any of their competitions under the watchful eyes of their Bahraini President - Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa - should realize how hollow that slogan would sound and look. A slogan, like the word Pandemic that cannot be used lightly or carelessly.
This “endemic injustice” and clear favoritism of Sheikh Salman’s own home country has deeply wounded 85-million ardent football fans in Iran, arguably the most passionate across the world. FIFA will need to interfere and save the face of Asian Football before the world game that it governs.
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