Covid tests for fans, limited crowds and Bayern favourites - Club World Cup kicks off in Qatar

Doha (AFP) –


Bayern Munich are the overwhelming favourites to cap a remarkable last year as they head to Qatar for the delayed FIFA Club World Cup, taking place later than scheduled because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic which overshadows the tournament.

Bayern qualified after their triumph in last season's UEFA Champions League, the crowning moment of a 2020 which also saw Hansi Flick's team win the Bundesliga, German Cup, UEFA Super Cup and German Super Cup.

Now they are hoping to become the eighth consecutive European winner of the Club World Cup, a run that started when Bayern themselves lifted the trophy in Morocco in 2013.

If they do so they can -- albeit with the caveat that this competition is being played in a different calendar year -- match the achievement of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, who won six trophies in 2009.

"That would probably be the icing on the cake, but it's obviously going to be a challenge," said Flick.

"It's always the case at Bayern Munich that you want to have the most successful season possible and after the treble, you're obviously looking at the FIFA Club World Cup."

Bayern have named all the big guns, from Manuel Neuer to Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski, in their squad ahead of their entrance in the semi-final next Monday against either African champions Al Ahly or host nation representative Al Duhail.

- Final against Palmeiras? -

The expectation is that they will go through to the February 11 final and likely face Palmeiras, with the Brazilians fresh from winning the Copa Libertadores last weekend.

Palmeiras play their semi-final on Sunday against either Tigres of Mexico, the CONCACAF Champions League winner, or Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea, who are back in Qatar after winning the Asian Champions League there in December.

Tigres and Ulsan Hyundai kick the tournament off on Thursday when they meet at the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium in Al Rayyan, on the outskirts of Doha.

- Muted atmosphere, but fans allowed in -

The mood in Doha is muted compared to the last Club World Cup in December 2019, which saw thousands of supporters of Liverpool and Brazilian giants Flamengo descend on the normally staid city.

This time, the tournament kicks off with Qatar seeing a spike in coronavirus cases and hospital admissions, and local authorities have taken a swathe of measures including banning travelling fans from outside the country.

New cases over the last week jumped by a third compared to the week before, according to official data, while hospital admissions due to Covid-19 are up 85 percent in the past month, according to the country's Ministry of Public Health.

As of Monday, 249 people had died from the virus while the overall case load has topped 151,000 in a country with a population of under three million.

- Obligatory testing -

However Abdulwahab al-Musleh, sports affairs adviser to Qatar's health ministry, claimed ahead of the tournament that fans faced a negligible risk of contracting the virus because of the requirement for them to present a negative test ahead of each match.

That comes after the experience of the domestic Emir of Qatar Cup final in December, where all 20,000 fans who attended the half-capacity match were required to present a negative test.

And so while sporting events across much of the world are currently going ahead behind closed doors, a limited number of spectators will be allowed inside Club World Cup games.

Spectator numbers are capped at 30 percent of capacity at each of the two 40,000-seat venues. Social distancing, mask wearing and use of Qatar's contact tracing app will be mandatory.

Meanwhile, following a cluster of cases in the Saudi Al-Hilal team during the AFC Champions League late last year, Musleh said "several measures to prevent that recurring" had been taken.

The pandemic has already directly impacted the tournament though as Oceania champions Auckland City withdrew due to quarantine measures required by the New Zealand authorities.

Despite the spectre of coronavirus, the tournament remains a useful test event for FIFA and organisers ahead of the fast-approaching 2022 World Cup in the country.