SINGAPORE - The Republic has withdrawn as host of two AFC Cup groups owing to the "erratic" Covid-19 situation in the region, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced on Thursday (May 27).
The continent's second-tier club competition was set to see visiting teams from Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines join Singapore Premier League sides Lion City Sailors and Geylang International in the June 29-July 6 event.
But with Singapore entering Phase 2 (heightened alert) due to the recent spike in coronavirus cases, and the implementation of restrictions such as a 21-day quarantine for visitors from most countries, the staging of the 12 matches became untenable.
With more than 1.7 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 49,000 deaths, Indonesia is the worst-hit country in South-east Asia. Malaysia recorded a high of 7,857 cases on Thursday, with an overall total of over 500,000 cases and a death toll of over 2,300 since the pandemic started. The Philippines has recorded more than one million infections and nearly 20,000 deaths.
The FAS said on Thursday: "The FAS has been working with all parties to provide a safe environment for all participants of the tournament.
"However, the erratic Covid-19 situation regionally has made the inbound travel challenging for the overseas participating teams.
"In the interest of all the players, the officials and the local community, the FAS has decided not to host the AFC Cup 2021 group-stage matches."
The Asian Football Confederation acknowledged "the challenges caused by the evolving nature of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore and around the region" and added that further details regarding the two groups would be communicated in due course.
It is understood that the games will be postponed, possibly to October.
The Sailors were set to play Kedah, Saigon and Persipura Jayapura at the National Stadium, while Geylang were to play Terengganu, Kaya-Iloilo and another qualifier at Jalan Besar.
Singapore's decision to not host the AFC Cup group games comes after a spate of cancellations and postponements of high-profile events involving international arrivals.
In sport, mixed martial arts outfit One Championship's Empower event that was scheduled for May 28 at the Indoor Stadium has been put on ice. At the same venue, the June 1-6 Singapore Badminton Open, which was set to be the sport's final qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics, was cancelled for the second consecutive year.
Non-sporting events scrubbed from the Republic's calendar include the World Economic Forum's special annual meeting slated for August and the Shangri-La Dialogue, which was scheduled to take place from June 4-5.
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from the Rophi Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, agreed that it would be wise to avoid hosting a multi-national sporting event here for the time being.
He said: "All countries in this region who are in the competition are struggling with the pandemic. It would be socially irresponsible to continue as planned as there would be a risk of cross-border transmission and spreading of the virus."
The AFC had announced Singapore as host for Groups H and I on March 1 after "an extensive bidding process". While the Singapore teams will now have to play their AFC Cup group games away, Sailors chief executive Chew Chun-Liang believes his team can still progress to the knockout stage.
He said: "While we look forward to the excitement of competing in this regional tournament, we fully understand and respect the FAS' decision to withdraw as hosts for the AFC Cup games. We remain confident that the team will still be able to achieve our goals in the competition."
Geylang's spokesman shared the same sentiments as they "await further details on where our AFC Cup matches will be played".
Elsewhere, the five AFC Cup groups based in the West Asia zone have already begun competition in Bahrain, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since May 14.