Football | After stunning debut, Benfica barred from AFC again

After surpassing all expectations in this year’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup, local team Benfica de Macau will be staying home next year for failing to meet administrative requirements for their participation. The club’s president, frustrated on being barred for the second time in two years, says he is considering a “downsizing” of Benfica in future.

Last year Benfica made a stunning debut in the group stage of the prestigious tournament, winning four out of six games and finishing second in its group after North Korea’s April 25 Sports Club. Participation in the international tournament was seen as the next big step for the club, which has dominated local football in recent years and was seeking more competitive challenges abroad.

But the club will be staying in Macau next year after an embarrassing administrative failure that might have been avoided.

It is the second time in just two years that the club has been barred from participating on account of an administrative error and, just as in 2017, Benfica lays the blame partly on the shoulders of the Macau Football Association.

Speaking to the Times in an interview this week, Benfica President Duarte Alves accused the Macau FA, the sole official body responsible for coordinating the sport in the MSAR, of neglecting club football in favor of the so-called Macau “national” team. He said that the embarrassing situation might have been avoided if the Macau FA had been more proactive in supporting club football.

“From my point of view, there has been no support from the Macau FA for any Macau team to participate in the AFC Cup. They don’t see it as an important tool to developing local football,” he said. “It’s a shame that they only seem to care about the national team – they don’t care about the clubs.”

Football clubs require a license issued by the AFC in order to compete in the international tournament each year. A change in the registration policy in 2017 mandated that local football associations be responsible for coordinating the license application.

As per the license requirements, participating teams are expected to have under-18 and under-16 teams competing in a local championship. However, during this year’s application for the AFC license, the Macau FA announced that local schools would be permitted to field their own teams in a separate Macau-based championship, unintentionally depleting the Benfica youth teams of players.

A second license requirement that went unfulfilled this year was for participating teams to own or have access to a stadium to play their own matches. According to Alves, Macau bureaucratic procedures dictate that “everything has to go through the Macau FA” in regards to the stadium and therefore the football association needed to clarify the situation with AFC organizers.

He said that the AFC is generally flexible on these requirements, though they have to be clearly communicated to organizers ahead of the registration deadline. “We explained all our exceptions last year [to the AFC] and they were accepted. The regulations are exactly the same this year,” said a perplexed Alves.

In Alves’s opinion, the latest administrative error stems from what he perceives as the Macau FA’s lack of interest in club-level football in Macau.

“I think that the MFA is simply focused on fulfilling whatever is required to get the FIFA AFC subsidies – for example, having the various league echelons,” he proposed. “They are not focused on developing the game itself. They just do whatever is required to get the subsidies and be recognized internationally as a football association.”

“The big losers are Macau football and its fans,” he added.

The Macau FA did not respond to a Times’ request for a comment by press time.

Benfica made its first entry into the AFC Cup’s qualification round in 2015, before going on the following year to set a new record as the first Macau club to win a match in any AFC competition with a 4-2 victory over Rovers FC of Guam.

Then disappointment struck in 2017 when the club was not properly registered for the tournament. Benfica accused the Macau FA of negligence and described the failure to register the club as “embarrassing”, but the Macau FA countered that there had been a “miscommunication from both sides.”

“If things continue like this, we will reconsider our involvement in the sport at this level,” said Alves. “We are getting the message that it’s not worth it. Those who are leading football in Macau don’t see the AFC Cup as an important stepping stone, so I personally don’t think it’s worth continuing at this level.”

“The football [in Macau] will go back 10 or 15 years to what it was before. But if that’s what the guys who are heading the sport in Macau envision […] then we might as well downsize,” he said. “It’s a shame but it’s out of our control.”

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