Forty-team Champions League will stage group games in one West Asian and one East Asian hub from mid-April amid COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has cancelled several tournaments and announced centralised group stages for the Asian Champions League (ACL) and AFC Cup club tournaments as it continues to battle disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The newly expanded, 40-team Champions League, which took place in “bubble” conditions in Qatar last year, will stage group games in one West Asian and one East Asian hub from mid-April, the AFC said in a statement on Monday.
Western region matches, including clubs from the Middle East, will be played between April 14 and 30. The eastern region – including Australia, China, Japan and defending champion Ulsan Hyundai from South Korea – is scheduled for April 2 until May 7.
The 2021 competition schedule also cuts back round-of-16 and quarterfinals pairings to single elimination games in September instead of over two legs.
The semifinals and final revert to home-and-away games over two legs in October and November – when travel restrictions likely will have eased.
No venues were announced for the games, with bids accepted after the draw for the Champions League and AFC Cup group stage on Wednesday.
Last year’s edition was completed entirely in Qatar from when the pandemic-delayed later stages of the groups resumed in September through to the final in December.
The ACL was originally scheduled to start in February. Preliminary rounds now kick off in April to qualify for a 40-team lineup instead of 32.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are reportedly interested in staging games. The Saudis and Qataris are also competing with India and Iran in a bidding contest for the 2027 Asian Cup.
More tournaments cancelled
The AFC also cancelled or postponed four other continental tournaments due to take place in 2021.
The men’s Under-16 and Under-19 championships were cancelled in Bahrain and Uzbekistan, respectively. Both will host the next editions of the tournaments.
Those decisions follow FIFA cancelling editions of the men’s Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, which next take place in 2023.
Also scrapped are this year’s Asian championships in futsal and beach football. Kuwait and Thailand will retain hosting rights for 2022 and 2023, respectively.
The AFC Cup, a second-tier club tournament reserved for developing nations, will go ahead in a shorter form, starting in May and ending in August.
The start of qualifying for the women’s Under-17 and Under-20 Asian Cup tournaments in 2022 was also pushed back from March this year to August.
“We are grateful for the support of the hosts for these competitions who agreed with the AFC [on] the need to safeguard the interests of all stakeholders during this time of uncertainty and taking into consideration the risks of the current pandemic,” said AFC General Secretary Dato’ Windsor John.