SEOUL – The coronavirus will have an impact on the opening week of the Asian Champions League despite the absence of Chinese clubs.
The champions from South Korea and Japan meet in the opening round on Wednesday, when extra precautions will mean that any fans wanting to watch Jeonbuk Motors against Yokohama F. Marinos will have to wear masks and have a temperature of under 37.5 Celsius to enter the stadium in Jeonju.
Mainland China on Monday reported another rise in cases of the new virus, while the number of deaths grew by 97 to 908, with at least two more outside the country.
The Asian Football Confederation announced after an emergency meeting last week that because of the spread of the virus, the first three games for three Chinese clubs — Shanghai SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua — will be postponed.
“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. “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.”
The AFC hopes the group stage in the eastern half of the tournament can be completed before the region starts its knockout stage in June.
Asia’s biggest club competition involves 32 teams, divided into eight groups of four based in two geographical zones — east and west.
There are also off-the-field issues in the west side of the draw. The four Iranian clubs will play their first three games away from home because of security concerns related to heightened tensions in the region. The clubs considered boycotting the tournament until a meeting last month with the AFC.
As a result, Shahr Khodro FC is traveling to Dubai to take on Saudi giant Al Hilal, which won the 2019 title to become only the second West Asian winner since 2005.
In the eastern half, it remains to be seen if the Chinese contingent can return to action in late April and May to play their rescheduled fixtures but in the meantime, rivals will be looking to get some points on the board.
The J. League champion Marinos are back in the continental competition for the first time in six seasons.
“It’s a different game, a different proposition, a different opponent and a different country,” Marinos coach Ange Postecoglou said of the match against Jeonbuk. “We haven’t been in the AFC Champions League as a club for a long time so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Yokohama lost the Japan Super Cup to Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe in a penalty shootout after a 3-3 draw in Saitama on Saturday.
Kobe will be making its first ACL appearance and is hosting Johor Darul Tazim of Malaysia in one of only four games to go ahead in East Asia this week.
“We worked hard to get into the Champions League,” said Iniesta, who won the 2010 World Cup with Spain. “We know that it won’t be easy but we are looking forward to the challenge of facing some of the best teams in Asia.”
Australia has three clubs in the group stage of the tournament for the first time, and Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC will be looking to improve on the 2019 edition when they failed to win a single game.
“We have a big couple of months ahead in both the A-League and Champions League, and it will take our entire squad working hard together to help us achieve our ambition of qualifying for the next stage,” Melbourne coach Carlos Salvachua said.
Victory will kick off against Thailand champion Changrai United, which is making its first appearance in the group stage.