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What Brunei's pull-out from the Challenge Cup means for the Philippines

March 20, 2013 5:38pm

The AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers have been thrown into turmoil at the news of Brunei dropping out of the qualifying stage. With only Group E left to play, hosted by the Philippines and also including Cambodia and Turkmenistan, Brunei’s canceled trip leaves the group with only three teams, in a move which may mean the biggest challenge of the Challenge Cup will be organizing who qualifies for it.

[Related: Brunei out of AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers - report]

The Brunei Times are quoting the Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, Dato Paduka Hj Mohd Hamid Hj Modh Jaafar, as saying that “Due to unavoidable circumstances, Brunei Darussalam is unable to participate in the upcoming AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers scheduled to be held in the Philippines from March 22-26.”

Now, football fans in several countries are left wondering if the circumstances were unavoidable, why the announcement of Brunei’s inability to compete came so late, particularly as it creates huge problems for the other competing teams.

AFC Challenge Cup regulations have a stipulation for a scenario of a different number of matches between the groups and so here we take a look at how this affects the Philippines’ chances of qualification.

A more complicated qualifying stage

With all other groups playing three games, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Turkmenistan in Group E will only get to play two. As the group winners in each of the five qualifying groups qualify automatically, the Azkals still know that wins over Cambodia and Turkmenistan will put them through regardless of any other results. However Turkmenistan is the highest-ranked country in the competition and top seeds to win the Challenge Cup. Even with home field advantage, defeating Turkmenistan will be no easy feat as that game could well have also been the Final.

For either Turkmenistan or the Philippines then, looking at the route for the second-placed team to qualify is essential. Originally with four teams in each group, the two runners-up in the five groups with the most number of points qualified. This was already fairly complicated given the comparison would be across five teams with only two possible places in the final stage and an importance placed on goal difference in case of equal points. However, Brunei’s withdrawal throws another spanner into the works.

Often when a team defaults on their games after confirming their attendance and being scheduled, their opponents would receive a default 3-0 win. This is what is happening in the UFL Second Division as Cebu Queen City United are automatically losing all their matches 3-0 due to withdrawing after teams and schedules had been completed.

In such a case, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, and the Philippines would receive automatic 3-0 wins and the comparison over three games would hold. However under Appendix 2 of the Challenge Cup’s rules and regulations, there is a rule in place for determining the best runner-up in case of an uneven number of games.

AFC Challenge Cup regulations

Appendix 2 in the Challenge Cup rules and regulations states that in case of an uneven number of games between groups, “the results of the matches between the runner-up team and the bottom-placed team in the group will be considered null and void.” This would mean that the Philippines would face Turkmenistan and Cambodia, the top country qualifying and the runner-up compared to the runners-up in the other four groups, minus their match against the team that placed bottom. This way, all the runners-up would have "played" just two matches.

Under this ruling, the current top two teams out of the five runners-up would be Laos on four points with a goal difference of two and India on three points with a goal difference of three. As it stands right now (not taking that ruling into account), Bangladesh is on top with six points and a +5 goal difference, followed by India, also with six, but with a +4 differential.

With the change, Laos would be on top of qualification, assured of a place in the final stage if there is a win for either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan in their clash, while previously they were out. This will come at the expense of India, who will wait nervously to see if Group E’s runner-up finishes with four points or a better goal difference.

Effectively, this will be viewed as moving the goalposts, and one of those previously qualified nations will instead be eliminated as a result.

This is also sure to bring further criticism to the AFC for playing the group qualifications at different dates when the countries’ standing affects teams in other groups. Turkmenistan and the Philippines now know that a win over Cambodia and a draw against each other would see the group runner-up qualify for the main stage. However, despite recent form, Cambodia may not be total walkovers, and there is a bigger risk in the match against Turkmenistan now.

Rules and regulations still uncertain

However while these rules are there in case of a different number of games between countries, their intended use is in pre-organized groups rather than in the case of withdrawn teams at the last minute. As such, whether this rule is applied is also under contention as Group E awaits confirmation from the AFC regarding the revised qualification procedure.

As Turkmenistan and the Philippines finished second and third respectively in the 2012 incarnation of the tourney, with champions North Korea no longer participating in the Challenge Cup, the winners of the 2014 were most likely coming from Group E until Brunei’s withdrawal. The eventual winners of the Challenge Cup may therefore stand triumphant under the caveat of avoiding one of the two top seeds in the competition, based on the bureaucratic problems of a nation that had no chance of winning the competition to begin with.

This makes the match against Turkmenistan all the more important for the Azkals. If either country wins in that clash, it will probably mean exit for the other unless they can win by four or more against Cambodia. As such, Group E is even more likely to see the Philippines and Turkmenistan playing for a draw, at the risk of sanctions for ‘unsportsmanlike behavior’ due to the mess.

While this competition is designated for ‘emerging’ football nations then, it seems like it is the AFC who need to emerge from this mess with a real strategy and organization for the Challenge Cup. - AMD, GMA News
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