(Main Photo: AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal group stage action taking place in Cambodia in the midst of the global and regional COVID-19 outbreak on 10 March. Photo Credit: the-afc.com)

Southeast Asia is feeling the brunt of the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which originated from Wuhan, the Hubei provincial capital in mainland China in November 2019, with cases reported throughout except in Timor Leste at the time of writing.

The second major Asian pandemic in the 21st century after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 has seen regional football take a huge hit on and off the pitch. This time, the impact and consequences are more severe compared to the previous virus outbreak.

Using two charts, AseanBola attempts to compare how the SARS and COVID-19 epidemics have affected regional football in domestic and international competitions on and off the pitch.

The first chart shows how international competitions have been affected by the onset of the viruses on a massive scale in the previous decade and currently.

Tournament SARS (2003) COVID-19 (2019-present)
AFC Champions League None of the matches involving Southeast Asian clubs were postponed despite the outbreak. The 2020 group matches involving Malaysian powerhouses Johor Darul Ta’zim and Thai champions Chiangrai United have been rescheduled due to opponents’ unavailability, but both have each played at least one match at this phase.

Perennial Thai regulars Buriram United travelled to Shanghai, China to take on Chinese side Shanghai SIPG behind closed doors in the playoff round on 28 January when the virus was already widespread in the mainland.
AFC Cup Tournament did not exist until 2004. The 2020 group matches in the ASEAN Zone have taken place as scheduled with all the teams in Groups F, G and H have already played three rounds at the time of writing.
International (Olympics/World Cup qualifiers) Turkmenistan withdrew from the second round of the 2004 Olympics men’s football Asian qualifying after they refused to travel to Malaysia in fear of the virus.

It was widely believed that the other second round qualifiers involving Thailand and Singapore, among the other Southeast Asian nations involved, were pushed back into the second half of 2003 owing to the spread of the virus in the region in May and June.
FIFA and AFC announced the postponements of the joint FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022-AFC Asian Cup China 2023 qualifiers, which are scheduled to be held in the March and June international window periods, to a later date on 9 March 2020. The affected matches are likely to be played in the months of October and November respectively.

Affected Southeast Asian nations in this phase due to the rescheduling are Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Virus Chart 1 – Then and now, the impact of the outbreak of the viruses in international football in Southeast Asia.


During the previous SARS outbreak in 2003, it is clear that the international football structure for club and national teams were not as systematic and coherent in Asia and the world, as what we know today. The non-existence of social media in that year limited the spread of information of what is happening in the other Southeast Asian countries elsewhere compared to the home nation in question. This impact is also evident in the second chart on domestic competitions then and now, where it is widely assumed that things on the football side went on as per normal during the previous medical crisis.

With the advent of the information age, content becomes more widely available across the region and wider world, which also helps reveal the full fallout from which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is impacting certain decisions by various local football authorities as indicated in the second chart below.

Nation SARS (2003) COVID-19 (2019-present)
Brunei Business as usual. The sultanate’s sole professional club, DPMM FC, did not travel to Singapore for the 2020 Singapore Community Shield due to travel restrictions to Singapore in place on 17 February 2020. Away Singapore Premier League games involving them were also rescheduled until further notice.

As Brunei announced the first virus cases, DPMM’s scheduled home league match against Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on 14 March 2020 was postponed until further notice, throwing further home matches into limbo.

The sultanate’s governing body, the National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam, announced on 13 March 2020 that the domestic top-flight Brunei Super League is suspended until the subsiding of the virus renders the league suitable for play again.
Cambodia There was no league competition in Cambodia in 2003. Having kicked off the top-flight Cambodian League on 15 February 2020, the kingdom’s governing Cambodian Football Federation announced on 13 March that league matches will continue as scheduled, but entry will be tightened with the installation of the thermometer heat scanners.
Indonesia Business as usual. Having commenced the top-flight Liga 1 on 29 February 2020, the league authorities, PT Liga Indonesia Baru, insisted following a meeting with the national health authorities on 13 March that matches in the league will continue to be held as scheduled, while the second-tier Liga 2 will kick off on 14 March.
Laos Business as usual. Although the top-flight Lao Premier League had seen February starts in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the lack of a final team line-up sees the start of the 2020 season delayed.

The governing Lao Football Federation announced on 6 March 2020 the measures they were taking to tackle the outbreak of the virus in the land-locked republic, including playing the AFC Cup ASEAN Zone group match between Lao Toyota and Ho Chi Minh City behind closed doors on 10 March.
Malaysia Business as usual. On 13 March 2020, the nation’s football governing body, the Football Association of Malaysia, and the Malaysia Football League, announced that the weekend Super League and Premier League matches on 14 and 15 March will be played behind closed doors. (The postponement of the scheduled Petaling Jaya City v Terengganu Super League fixture that same weekend was not due to the epidemic, but the hosts’ inability to find an appropriate venue.) Thereafter, both leagues will be suspended from 16 March pending the pandemic situation.
Myanmar Business as usual. Having commenced the top-flight Myanmar National League in January 2020, the nation’s football governing body, Myanmar Football Federation, announced on 13 March that with immediate effect, the fixtures would be held as scheduled but to be played behind closed doors until 30 April.
Philippines No top-flight league in 2003. Originally scheduled to kick off on 21 March, the governing Philippines Football Federation and Philippines Football League made a joint announcement to postpone the new 2020 Philippines top-flight season to the new tentative date of 18 April.
Singapore Business as usual. The republic’s football governing body, the Football Association of Singapore, announced on 13 March 2020 that with immediate effect, all local matches in the top-flight Singapore Premier League will be played as scheduled, but behind closed doors until further notice.
Thailand A huge gap in between fixtures held in early March and late April 2003 suggested a possible suspension of the then 2003-04 Thai Premier League due to the SARS virus. On 3 March 2020, the kingdom’s football authorities, the Football Association of Thailand and the Thai League announced that the four league divisions would cease play until 17 April. Four rounds of league matches had already been played in the Thai top-flight League 1 prior to the postponement.
Timor Leste No top-flight league in 2003. The Timorese top-flight Liga Futebol Amadora Primeira Divisao has yet to commence for the 2020 season, with clubs still engaged in friendly matches.

Although the Football Federation Timor Leste, local government youth and sports ministry and league representatives met on 11 March 2020, there is no concrete indication of when the league will start nor how the pandemic is impacting the game in the country.
Vietnam Business as usual. Scheduled in February 2020, the league authorities Vietnam Professional League announced that the Vietnam Super Cup and league fixtures would be pushed back until March.

While the Vietnam Super Cup and V.League 1 fixtures were eventually held in early March, all of them were played behind closed doors.

The top-flight V.League 1 is still ongoing under the present conditions, but on 13 March, VPF announced a further delay to the start of the second-tier V.League 2 until further notice.
Virus chart 2 – Then and now, how the virus outbreaks impact local league competitions in the respective Southeast Asian nation.


While debate on the individual lethal attributes between SARS and COVID-19 rages on, it is clear that the widespread numbers of infected cases, including suspected ones, in Southeast Asia, save for Timor Leste, has impacted decision-making on the running of the domestic league competitions in these extraordinary times.