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AFC defends Champions League safety after virus-hit Al Hilal axed

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Asia’s football body Thursday defended safety measures for the AFC Champions League after coronavirus-hit title-holders Al Hilal were kicked out of the tournament for failing to field enough players. 

The Saudi giants had accused the Asian Football Confederation of showing insufficient “flexibility” after the club was axed for being unable to name a 13-man squad after several players tested positive for the virus.

Only 11 players were fit for Wednesday’s group-stage fixture in Doha against UAE’s Shabab Al Ahli after 30 players and staff were confirmed to have been infected.

Al Hilal had managed to send a squad for last week’s restart of Asia’s showpiece club tournament following a six-month hiatus. 

Asked whether they were concerned about the growing number of cases, the AFC told AFP they had taken sufficient precautions at the Qatar hub where West Asia group matches are being staged. 

“Bio-secure bubbles” had been created for players and staff and they were being regularly tested, while new bubbles had been set up for the media and security officials, the body said.

“There has been no transmission of Covid-19 between two competing teams throughout the matches,” they said in a statement to AFP. 

“AFC will continue to do everything in its power to minimise the transmission of Covid-19.” 

The football body insisted it was committed to “ensuring the safe completion of the AFC Champions League”.

After the lengthy break due to the virus, officials are rushing to complete the competition before the end of the year, with a single-leg final now due to take place on December 19.

Al Hilal said they had suggested various ways of remaining in the tournament, including postponing Wednesday’s match.

But the AFC said it had rejected the request as it “would have a huge negative impact” on the match schedule. 

Al Hilal played Iran’s Shahr Khodro on Sunday, after the AFC refused to postpone the game.

According to AFC rules, Al Hilal were still able to play the match as 14 of their players were available, including two goalkeepers.

Al Wahda’s campaign also ended in the group stages due to Covid-19. The UAE side failed to travel to Qatar following several positive tests among their squad.

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