The second round of regional Olympic soccer qualifiers has been postponed even before the completion of the first round as Asian soccer spins into turmoil amid the deadly outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The Asian Football Confederation announced yesterday that five second-round Asian qualifying matches for the 2004 Athens Olympics had been postponed indefinitely.
The second round matches, also contested on a home-and-away basis, had been set down for May 3 and either June 6 or June 7.
South Korea was due to meet the winner of the Hong Kong-Sri Lanka match, while Saudi Arabia was against the winner of the Taiwan-Singapore match and North Korea faced the winner of the Iraq-Vietnam encounter when the next round eventually gets underway.
Second-round matches between Thailand and the winner of the United Arab Emirates vs. Tajikistan match and China against the winner of the Syria vs. Pakistan match were also postponed.
In first-round matches going ahead, Syria is hosting Pakistan twice, on April 16 and April 19, and the UAE will host Tajikistan at Dubai on April 19 and travel to Dushanbe for the return leg on April 26.
``In view of the severity of the SARS outbreak in the region, we have decided to postpone these five matches as the players, officials and fans health are of utmost importance to us,'' said AFC General Secretary Peter Velappan.
SARS has reportedly killed 162 of the 3,000 people infected worldwide, mostly in Hong Kong and China, where the virus was believed to have originated.
``FIFA and AFC will closely monitor the developments of the situation with the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) and inform the teams and everyone involved of the new dates in due time,'' added Velappan.
Earlier this month, the AFC postponed three first-round Olympic qualifiers and shelved the 14-nation Asian qualifying tournament for the women's World Cup. The Asian championship was due to be held in Bangkok, Thailand starting this week.
Soccer's regional authorities have scrapped an East Asian men's series involving China, Japan and South Korea, while FIFA, soccer's international governing body, postponed the draw for the Sept. 23 to Oct. 11 women's World Cup in China.
The draw was due to be held in Wuhan, China on May 24 but was delayed as a ``preventive measure in the interests of the health of those taking part,'' FIFA officials said.
Despite speculation that the women's World Cup will be postponed or switched to another venue, FIFA and the Chinese FA have said they're confident the quadrennial tournament will go ahead as scheduled.
Meanwhile, English Premier League clubs Everton and Aston Villa have abandoned plans to tour China and Hong Kong for exhibition matches next month.
Olympic qualifiers have been hit hard in Asia.
Other sports have abandoned major events in the region. The women's ice hockey World Cup was canceled four days before its scheduled April 3 opener in Beijing, while the International Rugby Board pulled its Sevens Series events in China and Singapore.
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