The AFC Challenge Cup Qualification process was going as well as anyone could have hoped leading up to the final group. Kyrgyzstan surprisingly swept Group B to qualify for Maldives; Afghanistan found a great run of form to leave Laos Group C winners, while Myanmar and Palestine took care of business in groups A and D respectively.
Bangladesh had seemingly qualified for Maldives through the second place table and India were anxiously waiting for the Manila-based group to begin as their fate would be decided as a direct result of the outcomes there.
All of that changed on Wednesday March 20, when Brunei stunned the AFC by withdrawing from the competition citing unavoidable circumstances. It is still unclear as to what those circumstances actually were. As a neutral observer, this clearly smells of corruption within the Brunei Federation. Money certainly is not an issue for the small nation, as expensive commodities such as crude oil and natural gas make up 90% of its GDP. While this is not an economics blog by any means, everyone knows that oil-rich countries are very well off during these times.
It is reported that players were unaware of the withdrawal until after it had occurred. The common themes in their anonymous interviews were shock, confusion, embarrassment, and frustration. As far as they knew, they were leaving for Manila the next day to represent their country and build upon their showing at the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers last October. Even more bad news for the Brunei players and supporters as the AFC Challenge Cup Maldives 2014 regulations’ Section 3:20 (c) states:
“A participating member association (that) withdraws after entering or does not report for a match at any stage of the competition will be disqualified from taking part in the next edition of the competition.”
However, with their resignation sent to the AFC, a decision had to be made about how to handle the matches involving Brunei. These matches had a direct correlation to the second place rankings. The AFC awarded 3-0 wins to the Philippines, Turkmenistan and Cambodia. At first, it was thought that these awarded results would factor into the second place table as per standard procedure. Bangladesh would advance and India would have to hope for a small miracle to advance. However, there was more fine print to be unearthed.
Article 16.1, Appendix 2 of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup Regulations
“Due to the varying number of teams per group, teams in different group would have played different number of matches. Therefore, in order to ensure equality when comparing the runner-up teams of all the groups, all teams will be compared across similar number of matches. AFC will decide on the number of matches. In principle, the results of the matches between the runner-up team and the bottom placed team in the group will be considered null and void. All points, goal scored and goals conceded in this match will not be taken into account.”
This meant that all 4 groups would have to be recalculated. The below matches were ruled null and void when determining the second place qualifiers.
India 2-1 Chinese Taipei
Tajikistan 3-0 Macau
Laos 1-1 Mongolia
Bangladesh 4-0 Northern Mariana Islands
Three teams were stripped of 3 points and also took a massive hit to their goal differential. After the recalculating of the second place table prior to Group E looked like this:
Laos 4 +2
India 3 +3
Bangladesh 3 +1
Tajikistan 3 0
With Brunei’s withdrawal, Bangladesh saw themselves go from qualified to eliminated, while Laos saw themselves go from eliminated to qualified! All from a small print snafu! Surely the Bangladesh Federation must be upset. India were still in the hunt, but needed lots of help from Cambodia in Group E to have a chance.
That help never came as Turkmenistan overpowered Cambodia 7-0 in the group opener. India’s future now rested directly on the Philippines v Cambodia fixture. Cambodia were again dismantled, this time to the tune of 8-0. With both teams guaranteed a minimum of three points and leading India a large margin in goals, India would need a big win from either Philippines or Turkmenistan to stay alive.
Both the Philippines and Turkmenistan were aware of their standing prior to the match, with passage secured with a draw or a small victory by either side. The match We Global had picked as the “Best Match in Qualification” before the competition started was rendered meaningless. The Philippines defeated Turkmenistan 1-0 and thus finally eliminated India after weeks of waiting.
It hardly seems fair that Bangladesh were punished in this manner. Cambodia were clearly the team in Group E that other teams were going to blast in order to better their goal differential, just like Northern Mariana Islands were in Group B. Brunei would have most likely beaten Cambodia as well, and maybe would have competed with the Philippines and Turkmenistan. If Brunei steals a draw from either of those teams, everything is completely different.
Bangladesh had their best result wiped out due to bogus competition rules. I truly feel bad for them. They played Palestine closer than Nepal or Northern Mariana Islands and defeated host Nepal, something Palestine was unable to do. In my opinion, Bangladesh were far more deserving than Laos, who lucked out and saw their embarrassing draw to Mongolia ruled null and void.
The AFC needs to take a good, hard look at their qualification regulations and would need to intensely debate including Brunei in any future competitions. Even the teams who had no business being there (Northern Mariana Islands and Cambodia) still had the decency to show up and compete.
Football is global, and sadly, it appears, so too is the corruption.