By Scott NcIntyre
Scott McIntyre investigates how Ceres-Negros’ quest to qualify for the AFC Champions League could now be out of their control.
Just days after their stunning AFC Champions League qualification victory over Brisbane Roar, Ceres-Negros’ hopes of reaching the group stage hang by a thread as they remain stuck in limbo in the Philippines – unable to obtain the visas they need to travel to China for Tuesday’s final qualifier.
The club has claimed that they’ve appealed to various bodies for help but with none forthcoming, they’ve called upon the AFC to postpone the match against Tianjin Quanjian to ensure that it’s played on an ‘equal’ level.
Having applied for the necessary travel documents at the Chinese embassy in Manila immediately upon their return from Australia they were informed that there wasn’t enough time to process them before the weekend, meaning that the earliest they can secure the visas would be on Monday.
Even if they are processed by then – and the club is not confident that will happen – it means the Ceres squad would need to catch an overnight flight to China, go without sleep or a training session and then play the biggest match in their – and their nation’s – history that same afternoon.
Speaking exclusively with FOX Sports Asia, Ceres coach Risto Vidakovic, termed the situation ‘crazy.’
“I think there’s not enough time – it was a ten hour trip from Australia back to the Philippines and when we arrived it was already Friday,” said Vidakovic.
“The Chinese embassy told us that they needed all the passports to process the visas and that, because it was Friday, they said they didn’t have enough time to give us the visas until after the weekend.
“That means if we get those visas on Monday we then must travel overnight and we will arrive on the matchday and without sleeping or anything and we have to go and play the game.
“This is a bad condition and difficult to compete so it’s a big problem how to organise everything to get there on time and play the game.”
With a best-case situation seeing Ceres arrive in the arctic conditions of Tianjin on Tuesday morning that would give them perhaps as little as seven or eight hours before kickoff.
Vidakovic called that ‘suicide’ for his team and implored the AFC to delay the game so that both clubs can compete on a more even footing – bearing in mind the extensive travel that the lower-ranked team already has to endure just to get to this stage.
He added: “Of course we need more time and they have to understand that we came from another continent and then going to China we have less than one week to prepare visas and prepare everything.
“We also need to think that we have to prepare the right equipment for this kind of match, it’s minus-11 there in China and in the Philippines it’s 35 degrees and everything is different so we need more time to compete in the same conditions as them and that’s only fair.”
“We’ve tried to contact many people, including in the government here, to get the visas, but there’s no possibility and the problem now is we need to try and postpone the game.
“Only the AFC or the ACL organisers can help us and the only possibility to compete in the same, fair, conditions is to move the game one or two days later.”
However, on Sunday evening, an AFC spokesperson responding the queries by FOX Sports Asiaclarified that the onus was on the club to ensure all proper documentation was in order.
“Based on provisions of the ACL Regulations and Competition Operations Manual, each Club (and its Member Association), at their own expense, are solely responsible throughout the Competition for obtaining visas to enter the territory of a Host Association,” said the statement from the AFC.
“Each Club must apply for all necessary visas for their Team Official Delegation no later than thirty (30) days prior to each match played outside its territory. This obligation includes potential away Matches, taking into account successful qualification for a further stage of a Competition.”
“Ceres did not apply for a visa ahead of their AFC Preliminary stage game in Brisbane. Since the issue was recognised on Wednesday morning, AFC has worked tirelessly with the Chinese Football Association to ensure visas are available as soon as possible so the match can go ahead as scheduled.”
This story now runs the very real risk of overshadowing the historic 3-2 victory in Brisbane earlier in the week where Vidakovic noted that he felt the A-League club had ‘underestimated’ his side.
“In football nothing is impossible – it was very difficult of course because nobody believed, even us, and we thought that we were just enjoying this competition without good preparation because it’s very difficult to compete with clubs at a high level that are already in their season,” explained the Serb.
“It was a surprise for everyone but if I look back and watch the game again I can say we deserved the win.
“We gave them problems with the transitions and we defended well and counter-attacked fast and that gave us the advantage in a match where the intensity wasn’t so high.
“We thought they would push more early in the second half but they’d didn’t do that and our defence was very good at that point and I think it was normal that they underestimated us before the match, that’s normal and it’s not easy to motivate your players when you play smaller clubs and before the game everyone expects you to score a lot of goals with a relaxed atmosphere.”
Should the game go ahead as scheduled, the winner will then join Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Kitchee and the winner of the Kashiwa Reysol-Muangthong United playoff to complete Group E.