World Cup Qualifying: Iran takes Asian Football Confederation to CAS

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has confirmed it has started an investigation into the decision by the Asian Football Confederation to award hosting rights for COVID-hit World Cup qualifiers to Bahrain, the home country of its president.

It followed the move by the AFC for its eight groups to hold the matches in centralized venues in the next international window (May 31-June 15) to get around travel restrictions caused by the pandemic.

The decision prompted anger in Iran, which had expected to be the centralized venue for Group C, in line with how seven other countries were chosen.

This saw the top seeded team in each group chosen to play host because they had already played three away games, with the only home one being against the lowest seeded team in the group.

If the pattern was followed it would have resulted in China, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Australia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Japan being picked.

However, Australia had to be ruled out because its government’s strict 14-day quarantine conditions made it impossible for Group B to host its matches there. In its place, the AFC awarded hosting rights to Kuwait because the first-leg match between Kuwait and Jordan had taken place in Jordan.

But there was an outcry from Iran when it was announced the Group C games would be hosted by Bahrain, the home country of AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa. This was despite Iran already playing Bahrain away in the group.

Bahrain has already played its two main rivals, Iraq and Iran, at home and its weakest opponents, Hong Kong and Cambodia, away.

The Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI)  filed a complaint to the Swiss-based CAS over the AFC’s decision to "deprive" it of its right to host matches, three out of four of which were due to be played at home.

On Monday the CAS confirmed it has started an arbitration process between the Iranian football federation and AFC which was “at an early stage”.

One of the matters the FFIRI is urging the CAS to look at is whether the AFC broke its own rules when it awarded hosting rights to Bahrain.

On the FFIRI website is a letter it received on March 19 from the AFC  General Secretary Dato’ Windsor John saying the decision to award Bahrain hosting rights had been made by the organization’s general secretariat.

But a source on the Iranian side claimed this was in breach of the AFC’s own rules, which stipulate that decisions of this type must be made by the AFC’s competitions committee, then approved by the 27-member executive committee before finally being ratified by FIFA.

He said: “The way the decision was made is, by its own admission, a breach of AFC rules. It’s an extraordinary situation and one that I’m sure CAS will be looking closely at."

The FFIRI has now asked CAS for a speedy resolution of the problem as any drawn out process could mean the Group C matches are not finished in time for the next and final round of Asian qualifiers to end before next year’s World Cup.

Iran’s Porto FC star Mehdi Taremi, scorer of the second fastest Champions League goal against Juventus in February, said: “ I am wondering when these biased AFC decisions against Iranian football come to an end! Bahrain’s heat and a whole host of reasons is making me wonder why there!”

The Iranian head coach, Croatian Dragan Skocic, has claimed it was obvious a decision to host the Group C matches in Bahrain had already been made ahead of a video conference with 40 countries on Feb. 16 to discuss the matter.

The AFC initially tried to blame its decision on sanctions against Tehran, saying its sponsors would be affected, but when this was shown to be unfounded it put it down to high COVID rates and the state of the country’s stadiums.

Tehran hit back claiming infections were higher in Bahrain and that both the AFC and FIFA have previously approved Iran as a neutral venue for the home games of Afghanistan and Iraq.

During qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, eight national teams of Afghanistan, Singapore, Iraq, Thailand, Vietnam, Iran, India and Oman played five rounds of matches there.

Iraq currently leads the standings with Bahrain in second place, while Iran, which has qualified for the last two World Cups, is in third, five points behind the leaders and with a game in hand.

Only the group winners of each of the eight groups are guaranteed a place in the AFC finals.

In his same letter to FFIRI of March 19,  Dato’ Windsor John denied that any pressure had been put on him by Sheikh Salman to award hosting rights to Bahrain.

“The AFC President does not intervene in the decisions made by the AFC General Secretariat,” he said.
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