Al Hilal hit out at 'inflexible' AFC over Champions League axing

(Reuters) - Al Hilal have slammed the Asian Football Confederation for their “inflexibility” after the reigning champions were kicked out of Asian Champions League because they were only able to muster 11 players for their final Group B fixture.

The Saudi club, who had already qualified for the last 16, said they had been determined to defend their title despite 30 players and staff becoming infected by COVID-19 in the Qatar hub where Asia’s premier club competition resumed last week.

“The board of directors ... sought to work on a number of methods that preserve Al Hilal’s right to compete without any disorder to the tournament,” the Riyadh-based club said in a statement.

“All these requests were rejected by the AFC, in spite of facing compelling circumstances that require greater flexibility from the AFC in assessing the situation.”

Among the suggestions rejected by the AFC, they said, were that they would forfeit their final group match against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai but not their place in the competition, as well as a one-day postponement of Wednesday’s fixture.

They also suggested the knockout stages, scheduled to start on Sunday, should be put back “in light of the outbreak of COVID-19 at the level of the whole tournament, not just Al Hilal”.

The AFC said when announcing Al Hilal’s exit that they had already allowed the club to bring in players to replace some of those who had contracted the virus and that a postponement would have a “huge negative impact” on the schedule.

Al Hilal also said the competition rules demanding matchday squads of 13 players contravened FIFA’s “basic law of the game” that only 11, including one goalkeeper, were required to contest a football match.

The board said they were considering submitting a protest to the “judicial authorities” to “preserve the club’s rights at the official authorities”.

Al Hilal’s departure means Shabab Al Ahli Dubai qualify for the knockout stage from Group B along with Uzbeki club Pakhtakor, who beat Iran’s Shahr Khodro 1-0 in their final round robin match in Doha on Wednesday.

Group A, which was reduced to three teams when Emirati club Al Wahda were kicked out before the resumption after an outbreak of COVID-19 in their squad, also concluded on Wednesday.

Iran’s Esteghlal beat Saudi group winners Al Ahli 3-0 at Al Janoub Stadium to secure second spot and a place in the knockout stages ahead of Iraqi champions Al Shorta.

Al Ahli will play Shabab Al Ahli Dubai in the first round-of-16 clash on Sunday at Al Janoub Stadium before Pakhtakor take on Esteghlal in the later match.

Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford