Bengaluru FC players flout Covid-19 rules in Maldives, AFC Cup Group D games called off
Three players of India’s Bengaluru FC flouted quarantine norms in Maldives, leading to the AFC Cup Group D South Asia Zone games scheduled in the archipelagic Indian Ocean nation being called off.
The matches have been postponed following the bio-bubble breach amid the raging second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the subcontinent. Group D games were to be held centrally in the Maldives capital of Malé, but have been called off for now after local authorities wrote to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) of the breach and sought a postponement.
The AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier club football competition, was not held last year due to the pandemic. Sunday's development comes after the Bengaluru FC players flouted quarantine norms, inviting the fury of the Maldives sports minister, Ahmed Mahloof.
Bengaluru FC were scheduled to face Maldives club Eagles on Tuesday in a play-off with the winners to join India’s ATK Mohun Bagan, Bangladesh’s Basundhara Kings and Maldives’ Maziya in Group D. Local authorities though asked Bengaluru FC to leave the country following the protocol breach.
Quoting a report in a local media outlet Channel News Maldives that said a few Bengaluru FC players were pictured moving in the busy streets of Malé in violation of rules for visitors from India, Mahloof tweeted early on Sunday: “Unacceptable behavior from @bengalurufc breaching the strict guidelines from HPA & @theafcdotcom. The club should leave Maldives immediately as we can’t entertain this act. We honoured the commitment we gave a few months back even with the surge in cases & pressure from the public.”
Health Protection Agency (HPA) is the apex health body of Maldives. “We have informed FAM that we cannot hold the match, and asked them to make arrangements for @bengalurufc’s departure. We will be in further correspondence with AFC through @MaldivesFA to postpone the group stage,” Mahloof added.
Bengaluru FC owner Parth Jindal tweeted his apology. “On behalf of @bengalurufc I am extremely sorry for the inexcusable behavior of three of our foreign players/staff while in Male - the strictest action will be taken against these players/staff. We have let @AFCCup down and can only say that this will never happen again.”
Maldives has been witnessing a surge in Covid-19 cases in recent days. Friday saw the country register a record 766 new cases and five new deaths. A month before, on April 7, Maldives had just 138 new daily cases and no new death.
Speaking from Kuala Lumpur, an AFC official said: “With cases rising in Maldives, it was getting difficult to go ahead with the group. After the bubble breach, it became impossible.”
The official didn't rule out sanctions on Bengaluru FC. "A lot of tickets needed to be cancelled, a number of people were in transit when the breach happened. So we will have to wait and see how AFC reacts to this."
Bengaluru beat Nepal’s Tribuwan Army Club 5-0 in the preliminary qualifiers to make the play-offs. Eagles made the cut after Dhaka was unable to host their qualifier against Abahani Limited last month and AFC awarded the tie to the former.
The domestic players of Bagan were due to leave Kolkata for Malé on Monday with the Spanish contingent, including coach Antonio Lopez Habas and his staff, scheduled to fly in directly from Spain. The club’s Fijian star Roy Krishna had a ticket for Malé a day later and Australian David Williams was trying to get permission from Australian authorities for the trip. Indian players Sheikh Sahil and Prabir Das had been ruled out after testing positive for Covid-19.
“Participating clubs who have travelled to Maldives will be required to arrange for their return home while adhering to the COVID-19 health and travel protocols put in place by the country. At the same time, AFC is in contact with all other participating clubs and officials who have not entered the Maldives to cancel their travel arrangements,” AFC said in its statement that confirmed the postponement of the matches.
Many sports events have been cancelled or postponed in South Asia amid the devastating second wave. The most notable was the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket league, called off after positive cases among players and team staff. Australian players, coaches and support staff in IPL have moved to Maldives to be in quarantine as direct flights home from India have been barred until May 15 due to the pandemic situation.
India’s Tokyo Olympics-bound athletes and those looking for a last-gasp qualification spot have also been impacted with many countries imposing travel restrictions for those from India.