By SK Chan
The advent of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic this year has caused major disruptions to world football, with the biennial Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship, currently known as the AFF Suzuki Cup for sponsorship reasons, among its victims.
Originally scheduled to be held at the end of 2020, the Southeast Asian football governing body AFF was forced in late July to postpone its flagship regional tournament to next year instead.
With the continuing airborne viral onslaught, which is now into its ninth month, causing havoc on domestic and international football in the region, AseanBola explores the five ways on how the post-COVID-19 landscape is going to impact the now-rearranged AFF Suzuki Cup.
- TOURNAMENT FORMAT & HOSTING
The AFF Championship has evolved from a singular host country format in its inaugural edition in 1996 to a multiple-host format in the most recent edition in 2018, where the participating nations, except Timor Leste, were each guaranteed two home matches in the group stage.
That saw the highest combined turnout in Southeast Asia’s premier international football tournament as 757,570 graced the stadiums across nine nations. Such fan engagement is not going to be repeated at least in 2021 though.
Due to the respective Southeast Asian governments imposing varied border and travel restrictions in the region, one nation’s attempt to ease border entry is not going to be reciprocated by a different state which is still grappling to contain the pandemic within its borders.
As different regional countries show inconsistent results in flattening the curves and mitigating the COVID-19 risks among their respective local populations, the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup will be the most difficult and delicate tournament to organise for the AFF and its tournament partners.
With multi-nation hosting at the group stage in the 2018 format an impossibility, the organisers have only two options left on the table: revert to a two-host format for the group stage with one of them hosting the single-leg semi-finals and final as was the case in 2002, or return to the singular-host system which was in place in the first three editions from 1996 to 2000.
Each of the two options allows the AFF Suzuki Cup to organized and operated within the event bubble under tight conditions and restrictions in an attempt to ensure a coronavirus-free tournament.
The tournament organisers will take inspiration on how similar bubbles in the late knockout rounds of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League in Portugal and Germany respectively ensured the completion of the European club football tournament calendar in August.
2. A FAN-FREE AFF SUZUKI CUP?
Football is nothing without fans, especially with the 2018 format particularly well-received by the national teams as each participating side enjoyed the backing of their respective local supporters for at least two home games.
The presence of strong physical support from the supporters as the 12th man in the stands uplifts the mood of the home players and spurs them to perform better.
As raised in the first point, the advent of the coronavirus will ensure such positive physical support from the stands a dream in 2021. Already, the football world has witnessed a peculiar new normal, with matches played behind closed doors or lately in a few cases, with limited attendance.
Governments are taking no chances with safety as they gradually lift the tight physical restrictions to control the pandemic spread, instructing citizens and visitors to observe these 3S: social distancing, sanitization and most crucially, staying away from crowded areas where possible.
Where the last S is concerned, the impact of playing in front of a virtually empty stadium dilutes home advantage for the hosting nation, as has been reported by the various leading European leagues after they resumed their COVID-19-affected 2019-20 season in May.
For players already accustomed to playing in front of packed stadiums in their domestic leagues, to suddenly play in front of empty seats is going to take getting some used to. It will be an unprecedented experience for the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup hosts, for no previous home teams have played in an empty stadium behind closed doors for their games.
The impact of even limiting the maximum capacity allowed to a fraction of the stadium seating, which is likely the best possible outcome during the post-COVID-19 national recovery phase, is just not going to be the same.
Without the highly-charged atmosphere from the fans surrounding the stadium, play is likely to be staider in the absence of motivation to raise their games further. Expect the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup to be the quietest ever.
3. SCHEDULING CONFLICT
The pandemic-enforced chaos in the international football calendar has already seen leagues and international matches rearranged, and in a few cases, cancelled.
Traditionally held in the second half of the even-numbered calendar year, rescheduling the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup is going to be a tricky balancing act.
Backed by the world football governing body FIFA deciding to extend the June 2021 international window from the usual two to four, the opportunity is open for the biennial regional tournament to be held that month, even though the AFF has publicly floated the likelihood of having its regional showpiece championship held in April and May.
The other alternative is to have the AFF Suzuki Cup held at the year end, just a year later than originally planned. This will help players and officials as many of the regional domestic leagues, except for Thailand who have moved to an autumn-to-summer league calendar, will have ended the 2021 campaigns by then.
Either way, whichever time of the year the AFF wants to hold its next edition, the pros, cons and dilemmas have to be weighed equally into consideration as explained in the next two points.
4. ASEAN FOOTBALL’S CLUB VS COUNTRY TUSSLE
Since its inauguration in 1996, no AFF Championship edition has been held in the middle of the even-numbered calendar year, with the earliest month being September. An exception was made in the 2007 edition, which was held in January due to the region’s involvement in the 2006 Asian Games men’s football tournament which was held at the Qatari capital Doha in December.
With the likely unprecedented mid-year scheduling of a mid-year 2021 edition, complications are set to arise as clubs, leagues and national associations battle for the services of the internationals.
A mid-year regional showpiece tournament runs into direct conflict with the domestic leagues as the latter face major disruptions at the prospect of suspending their competitions for at least a month in mid-season.
With FIFA also giving temporal powers to clubs for the release of players for international duty during the pandemic period, they in particular will be abhorrent at the prospect of internationals leaving halfway for the national cause.
The month-long international tournament, with stipulations in place for the event bubble, is going to be a physical and mental test for participating national teams. Potential problems arising from injury or worse, COVID-19 infection, cannot be ruled out.
This will not be the first time such disruption has occurred in the domestic leagues in Southeast Asia as the four co-hosts of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup finals – Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia – suspended their national leagues to prepared the national teams for the finals.
5. ASIAN ELITE DREAMS OR JAGUH ASEAN KAMPUNG
Whether the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup is going to be held in mid-year or year-end, it faces strong competition with the rescheduling of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers.
Holding the regional showpiece in mid-year, even before the possible qualifying matches in June, is tricky. Not only will clubs grumble over the potential prolonged release of their internationals, some national teams have dilemmas of their own too.
By the time April 2021 comes around, a number of Southeast Asia countries will have remained in solid contention to qualify for the Final 12 phase, which also provides entry into the 2023 AFC Asian Cup finals to be held in China.
The leading regional teams in the likes of Thailand and Vietnam, who possess realistic prospects of entering into the next phase of World Cup qualifying, are going to have their work cut out in balancing their international aspirations. Do they want to raise their Asian standing with a seat alongside the continental elite such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran?
Or do they want to remain content in battling merely for regional supremacy in the unofficial Southeast Asian World Cup, displaying their pride at being kings of the region but paupers beyond?
The same psychological dilemma is going to arise if the AFF Suzuki Cup is held at year-end. By then, the Asian Cup qualifiers will likely to be in full swing while the final phase of World Cup Asian qualifying is likely to be concurrently taking place.
Such intense international scheduling at this period will see national teams rush through their continental commitments before pursuing the equally serious business of regional glory.
For the Southeast Asian nations who might be close to claiming the Asian Cup finals tickets in China, they have to decide whether they want to cast their international aspirations wider into the continent or be content with regional competitiveness.
Likewise for those involved in the final World Cup qualifying phase, could an exhausting scheduling against the Asian giants, while meeting the continental goals, leave them needing to field a second-string side to fulfill the AFF Suzuki Cup obligations?
From scheduling to logistics, there are no simple plans or decisions for Southeast Asian football in the pandemic-affected world. The effects are already felt and will continue to impact further in the months ahead.
The AFF and its tournament-sponsoring partners have to attempt to answer adequately every possible scenario from the following five points above if they are to successfully mitigate the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup, which will likely be devoid of capacity crowds and held in the midst of a crammed international calendar.
(Editor’s note: This AseanBola post is the historic first guest contribution. The author, who is known in the Twitter world as @abearfromsea, is a passionate football affecionado, particularly on national teams and all things Asia and Southeast Asia. Editing and additional input from me.)