Asian World Cup qualification has been a long and oft delayed process due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Even as travel restrictions eased and football resumed a somewhat normal cadence of league play and international breaks- AFC competitions remained suspended for much of 2020.
The 2020 AFC Cup was cancelled and the continent’s marquee event- the 2020 Asian Champions League was only barely completed perhaps only to guarantee the revenue and prestige of participating in the FIFA Club World Cup.
As for qualifying, although Europe and South America had no problem playing Nations League matches, World Cup qualifiers, and AFCON qualifiers respectively. Asia has been unable to find a solution that would allow its national team programs back onto the pitches of the continent.
As reported earlier, most World Cup qualifying matches were delayed again last week. With only a handful of matches going ahead next month.
It was thought that Palestine’s rescheduled World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia was meant to be in addition to the host’s originally scheduled match against Yemen.
It has now come to light that that is not the case at all. As per the Saudi Football Federation, Yemen backed out at the 11th hour citing trouble traveling due to the pandemic. This after an official update was posted on FIFA’s website stipulating that Saudi Arabia v Yemen would be one of four matches to take place in the window.
Instead, Saudi Arabia will now play Kuwait in a friendly on the 25th of March before facing off against Palestine five days later (a match originally slated for June).
The real question is why would Palestine agree to contest this match early? The coronavirus situation in Palestine at the time of writing is bleak and there are murmurs of another lockdown being enforced in the West Bank.
What if one (or more) of Palestine’s players tests positive and cannot travel?
For its part, Saudi Arabia has also placed added travel restrictions. These restrictions could limit the participation of several players based abroad.
As such, it might not be possible for Mahmoud Wadi, Mohammed Saleh (Egypt), Amr Kaddoura, Ahmed Awad (Sweden), Saleh Chihadeh (Switzerland) and Nazmi Albadawi (USA) to travel for this match. It would also affect players that might be traveling from Germany and Lebanon along with 20 other countries.
Unless the Saudi Football Federation can secure an exemption for these players we could very well see Palestine contest this match shorthanded.
This begs the question: Why risk playing a crucial World Cup qualifier early if you might not be able to field your best team?
Furthermore, if you are still serious about qualifying why hand out favors at all?
Had Palestine not complied- Saudi Arabia would have been the only team in Group D forced to play four fixtures in less than two weeks.
The Saudis still might have still been the favorite- especially since all signs point to them hosting the final group games- but it would have given Palestine an advantage. An advantage they are set to lose by almost certainly not hosting their final two home games vs. Singapore and Yemen.