AFF Cup 2020 at risk of format change due to COVID-19

Together with the possibility of deteriorating quality as many teams have not had the opportunity to make the best preparation of their forces, the AFF Suzuki Cup 2020, scheduled for November, is even at risk of changing its format if the COVID-19 situation in Southeast Asia is not put under control soon.

Vietnam head coach Park Hang-seo (second from right) speaks to national team defender Tran Dinh Trong in the stands during a V.League 2020 match.
Vietnam head coach Park Hang-seo (second from right) speaks to national team defender Tran Dinh Trong in the stands during a V.League 2020 match.

>>> Next Media becomes exclusive broadcaster of AFF Suzuki Cup 2020

>>> Vietnam win second AFF Cup trophy

Taking the Vietnamese team for instance, the preparatory steps worked out by coach Park Hang-seo and the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) for the national squad have been delayed since the beginning of the year, with V.League 2020 having been forced to a halt due to the impact of the disease. Such a fact has prevented the Republic of Korea tactician from keeping his initial recruitment and training plans on schedule. For the time being, Park’s side will not be able to reconvene until at least June, when no tournament is held.

In addition, Park is unlikely to have his strongest squad for the AFF Cup 2020, with centre back Duy Manh currently suffering an injury. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Dang Van Lam is also at risk of absence as he has to play for Muangthong United FC. In the case that the Thai League follows the new schedule (from September 2020 to May 2021), Dang Van Lam will have to acquire approval from Muangthong United to join his Vietnamese teammates in the AFF Cup, because the tournament is beyond the FIFA’s competition system for national teams.

Despite that fact, Park appears to be more fortunate than many of his counterparts in the region. Coach Akira Nishino may even lose the no. 1 star in his Thai squad, midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, and some other players who are currently playing in J-League (Japan). In 2018, when Vietnam were crowned AFF Cup champions, Thailand also did not have their strongest force, with Chanathip busy playing for Consodole Sapporo FC. Looking at how Thailand troubled Vietnam in the second round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, it is easy to realise the difference when Chanathip in the squad.

Similarly, M-League (Malaysia) has been suspended due to COVID-19 and will possibly resume no sooner than September, or even October. Malaysian media are even worried that the Super League might be cancelled. The Philippines recently decided to cancel all sports activities until December 2020, pushing the country’s national football team into a possible withdrawal from the AFF Cup 2020.

Southeast Asian football is suffering from the consequences of the pandemic at various levels, from mild to very serious. In this context, it is extremely difficult for teams to make their best preparations, regarding both forces and profession, for the regional championship.

Format change?

The AFF Cup 2020 being played with a changed format is a quite possible scenario if the novel coronavirus disease in Southeast Asia remains uncontrolled from now until the kick-off date. According to statistics, Singapore is currently the COVID-19 epicentre in Southeast Asia with 18,788 cases and 18 deaths. Indonesia ranks second with 11,587 cases and 864 deaths, followed by the Philippines with 9,485 cases and 623 deaths. Countries in the region have now tightened entry, exit and travel in an effort to curb the pandemic.

Meanwhile, according to the AFF Cup 2020 format, 10 participating teams will be divided into two groups and play on a home-and-away basis. If the disease is not properly controlled, it will be difficult for countries in a “closed” state to host a football match. The AFF Cup 2020 is also likely to be held at empty stadiums, which threatens to cause huge losses for the organising committee.

Permanent Vice President of the VFF Tran Quoc Tuan acknowledged that COVID-19 is seriously impacting football in the region and the world. He said the AFF has not made any announcement concerning the organization of the AFF Cup 2020. “A long period remains from now till the end of the year. Hopefully by then, the pandemic in Southeast Asia will have been curbed so that football events may return to normal,” he stated.