SEOUL (AP) — Asia’s top club soccer tournament announced changes Monday to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic for a second straight season.
The expanded 40-team Asian Champions League will have a group stage played in centralized hubs — in cities not yet decided — over 17 days in the east and west of the continent, the Asian Football Confederation said.
Western region matches, including clubs from the Middle East, will be played April 14-30. The eastern region including Australia, China, Japan and defending champion Ulsan Hyundai from South Korea is scheduled April 21-May 7.
It follows the 2020 edition being completed entirely in Qatar from when the pandemic-delayed later stages of the groups resumed in September through to the final in December.
The 2021 competition schedule also cuts back round of 16 and quarterfinals pairings to single elimination games in September instead of over two legs.
The semifinals and final revert to home-and-away games over two legs in October and November — when travel restrictions likely will have eased.
“Once again, the AFC will put the safety and welfare of all its stakeholders as its overriding priority,” confederation general secretary Windsor John said in a statement.
The Asian Champions League was originally scheduled to start in February. Preliminary rounds now kick off in April to qualify for a 40-team lineup instead of 32.
Choosing hub venues for the four-team groups will begin after the draw on Wednesday with national federations invited to host.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are reportedly interested in staging games. The Saudis and Qataris are also competing with India and Iran in a bidding contest for the 2027 Asian Cup.
The AFC also canceled or postponed four other continental tournaments due to take place in 2021.
The men’s Under-16 and Under-19 championships were canceled in Bahrain and Uzbekistan, respectively. Both will host the next editions of the tournaments.
Those decisions follow FIFA canceling editions of the men’s Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, which next take place in 2023.
Also scrapped are this year Asian championships in futsal and beach soccer. Kuwait and Thailand will retain hosting rights for 2022 and 2023, respectively.
The AFC Cup, a second-tier club tournament reserved for developing nations, will go ahead in a shorter form, starting in May and ending in August.
The start of qualifying for the women’s Under-17 and Under-20 Asian Cup tournaments in 2022 was also pushed back from March this year to August.
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