The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on Thursday confirmed the hosts for the AFC Champions League 2021 group stage, following an extensive bidding process and after close consultation with its Participating Member Associations.

The West Region matches, which are scheduled to take place between April 14-30, will see Saudi Arabia host Groups A and D in Riyadh as well as Group C in Jeddah, with the matches in Group B to be staged in the United Arab Emirates city of Sharjah, while India, whose representative FC Goa is poised to mark the nation’s debut in Asia’s premier club competition, will host Group E.

The Gaurs created history in 2020 when they became the first-ever Indian side to qualify for the group stages of the AFC Champions League after clinching the top spot in the Indian Super League (ISL) last season.

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Goa’s historic maiden voyage into Asian continental football was given further shape in January as it was drawn into Group E, alongside defending West Region champion Persepolis (Iran),  Al Rayyan (Qatar), and the winner of Play-off West 4, that will be between UAE’s Al-Wahda and Iraq’s Al-Zawraa.

Juan Ferrando’s men will begin their campaign on April 14, Wednesday, against Al Rayyan. They will play their last outing of the group stage on April 29.

In the East Region, the AFC has decided to postpone the group stage matches originally planned for April 21 - May 7 to June-July 2021, taking into consideration the existing travel restrictions and quarantine challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Thailand will provide the backdrop for the matches in the East Region Groups F, G and J, with the venues for Groups H and I as well as the exact dates for all groups to be decided and communicated in due course.

The Preliminary and Playoff matches of the AFC Champions League 2021 (East) are also postponed, and will be played in centralised venues of their respective Group Stage matches.

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As part of the bidding process, which was opened to all Participating Member Associations, a wide range of requirements were put in place to ensure adherence to the highest health and safety protocols and standards.

These include minimum travel and quarantine restrictions for away clubs, the convenience of flight connections and the medical situation in the host country, sufficient venues to organise the matches and, most importantly, mandatory COVID-19 test to be organised for all players and officials, the costs of which will be borne by the AFC.

Dato Windsor John, the AFC general secretary, said: “On behalf of the Asian football family, I would like to thank all our Member Associations for their interest in hosting our club competitions and commitment towards ensuring we continue to place the safety and wellbeing of our players, teams, and officials at the forefront of all our priorities.

“The AFC is most grateful for the support of the AFC Competitions Committee and our commercial partners and we will continue to safeguard the interests of all stake holders as we strive to ensure a safe and successful 2021 club football season.”