AFC Cup matches postponed after BFC players reportedly breach Covid-19 protocols

Bengaluru FC players celebrates a goal against SC East Bengal during the ISL 2020-21 season. Arjun Singh/Sportzpics for ISL

The Asian Football Confederation has cancelled its set of AFC Cup matches in the Maldives after an apparent breach of Covid-19 protocols by some players of Bengaluru FC in the capital Male. The country's sports minister, in a series of strongly worded tweets, had called for the BFC team to leave immediately for what he called "unacceptable behaviour".

The AFC Cup (South) Group D matches, scheduled from May 14 to May 21 will now not be held in the country and has been indefintely postponed.

BFC had landed in Male on Saturday ahead of their playoff tie with Maldives' Eagles FC on Tuesday, May 11. The winner would have been the last entrant in Group D, which already comprised ATK Mohun Bagan, Maziya FC (Maldives) and Basundhara Kings (Bangladesh).

According to PTI, local media reported that BFC players, who had reached Maldives on Friday, were seen on the Male streets, which was not permitted as they were given special permission to be in the country despite the ban on tourists from India because of a COVID-19 surge there. One of the conditions was that the players and staff had to be confined to the hotel at all times except when ging for training and the matches, it said.

Channel Nine Maldives also put up a photo of BFC's Australian import Erik Paartalu walking on a street in Male.

After news of the alleged protocols breach, Ahmed Mahloof, Maldives' Minister of Youth, Sports & Community Empowerment, had tweeted that it was "unacceptable behaviour" and that BFC should leave the country immediately. He had also said he would be working with the country's football association to make arrangements for the team's departure.

In response, BFC owner Parth Jindal tweeted an apology for the "inexcusable behaviour" of three of his "foreign players/staff."

BFC are likely to face disciplinary action from the AFC since rule 1.1.2 in the Confederation's 'Special Rules Applicable to AFC Competitions During COVID-19 Pandemic (Edition 2021)' states -- "...all Stakeholders and Individuals are required to comply with all health, safety, medical, security, travel and other protocol and laws set by the relevant authorities of the host country any Match is held in, at all relevant times."

Meanwhile, ATKMB, who would have kicked off the group stages on May 14 by playing the winner of the playoff tie, had reportedly also asked for a postponement after two players, Prabir Das and SK Sahil, had tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of their flight to Male on Monday.

The AFC Cup is Asia's second-tier annual continental club competition (below the AFC Champions League).

Bengaluru FC only made it to the qualification rounds of the 2021 AFC Cup due to the unique circumstances surrounding their compatriots, ATK Mohun Bagan. ATK had won the right to contest playoffs after finishing second in the ISL 2019-20 league stage, while Mohun Bagan had won direct entry into the group stages by virtue of winning the I-League 2019-20. However, the clubs joined forces to form ATK Mohun Bagan in 2020-21 and the combined entity was awarded the direct group spot. This meant the team which finished third in the ISL league stages, Bengaluru FC, got the playoff spot.