x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

AFC leaves door open to neutral venues being used in 2018 Asian Champions League

At the draw at AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were drawn to play each other in the group phase of next year's tournament, which kicks off in February

Al Hilal's Syrian forward Omar Khribin, right, scored a hat-trick against Iran's Persepolis in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semi-final played at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
Al Hilal's Syrian forward Omar Khribin, right, scored a hat-trick against Iran's Persepolis in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semi-final played at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) appears to have smoothed the way for clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to compete against each other in the 2018 Asian Champions League by saying matches could be played at neutral venues.

At the draw at AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were drawn to play each other in the group phase of next year's tournament, which kicks off in February.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with Bahrain and Egypt, cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar in June, accusing it of financing terrorism.

Abu Dhabi club Al Wahda were drawn in Group B alongside Qatar's Al Duhail and Uzbekistan's Lokomotiv while Dubai-based Al Wasl are in Group C with Al Sadd of Qatar and Persepolis of Iran. Group D consists of Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal, Qatar's Al Rayyan and Iran's Esteghlal, a nation also in dispute with the Saudis.

Matches between clubs from Saudi and Iran had to be played at neutral venues during this year's Asian Champions League, most notably the two-legged semi-final between Saudi side Al Hilal and Persepolis of Iran. Hilal won the first leg 4-0 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi before playing out a 2-2 draw at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat.

Windsor John, the AFC's general secretary, said on Thursday Asian football's ruling body had regulations in place to deal with any political issues and was confident the 2018 ACL would go ahead as planned.

___________________

Gulf Cup of Nations deadline pushed back over Qatar crisis

___________________

"Using the regulations is how we dealt with the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran," John said. "It will be the same way we will deal with any potential scenarios that may come up.

"The exco [executive committee] also decided a very high level delegation will go and explain the situation to all of the affected countries.

"I think it should be OK, so long as we follow the regulations. Any decision can be appealed, so we have a good structure in place."

The UAE's representatives in the 2018 competition are yet to comment on the situation.

The diplomatic stand-off with 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar has already caused numerous issues for football in the region.

The Gulf Cup of Nations, which is due to be held in the Qatari capital Doha at the end of this month, is under threat with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE unlikely to take part.

The UAE asked world governing body Fifa to change the referee in a World Cup qualifying match during the summer as the appointed official was a Qatari.

The AFC said that the prize money for the Asian Champions League would be increased in 2018, with the winners set to receive US$4 million (Dh15m), $1 million more than the amount won by Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds this year.

The prize pot for the runners-up has also been improved, from $1 million to $1.5 million.