By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese clubs have had their matches in the Asian Champions League postponed until April due to the coronavirus epidemic, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said after an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
Twice champions Guangzhou Evergrande along with Shanghai Shenhua, Shanghai SIPG and Beijing FC were due to begin their campaigns when the group phase of Asia’s most prestigious club competition kicks off next week.
Guangzhou and the two Shanghai clubs will now begin their involvement in the continental competition in April, with their group matches due to be played by the end of May.
Beijing’s meeting with Thailand’s Chiangrai United will go ahead as originally planned on Feb. 18 because the Chinese club were preparing for the new season camp in South Korea.
“We came together in difficult circumstances to find solutions to allow us to play football while ensuring we protect the safety and security of all players, officials, stakeholders and fans,” AFC general secretary Windsor John said in a statement.
“We also accept that this coronavirus is a much bigger issue than just football, and we wish all those who have been affected a speedy return to health.”
More than 425 people have died and thousands have been infected with the coronavirus, which broke out in the central city of Wuhan, leading to a growing number of countries imposing bans on travellers arriving from China.
The AFC last month rescheduled Champions League matches involving Chinese clubs, changing games slated to be played in China in the first half of the group phase to away fixtures.
However, an Australian government ban on all arrivals from China, which only allows citizens, residents and their immediate family members to enter the country, complicated matters.
As a result, Shanghai Shenhua and Shanghai SIPG, who were due to face Perth Glory and Sydney FC in their opening group games next week, canceled plans to travel to Australia and continued their pre-season preparations in Dubai.
The outbreak has already had a significant impact on Chinese football and sport more generally.
The Chinese Super Cup and the start of the Chinese Super League were both postponed indefinitely, while the hosting of the qualifying tournament for the women’s competition at the Olympic Games in Tokyo later this year was shifted to Australia.
In 2003 during the outbreak of the SARS virus in China, the Asian Champions League semi-final second leg involving Dalian Shide had to be postponed for four months.
(Reporting by Michael Church, editing by …)