Matildas coach Ante Milicic will be focused on the football. Picture: Bianca De Marchi/AAP
Matildas coach Ante Milicic will be focused on the football. Picture: Bianca De Marchi/AAP

Matildas' qualifiers moved to avoid virus-hit city

THE Matildas' Olympic qualifiers are to be switched from the Chinese city at the heart of an international health crisis, after mounting concern over the spread of a mystery coronavirus.

The qualifiers - which will kick off on February 3 - will instead be played in Nanjing, which is more than 500km to the west.

Football Federation Australia received notification from the AFC on Wednesday night (EDT) of the move.

The FFA said they welcomed the action taken by the AFC and Chinese Football Association given the current health risks.

The Australian players union (PFA) had made it clear earlier this week that a change of venue needed to happen to avoid athletes - as well as spectators and officials - being put in harm's way.

"There's no doubt the AFC understands the importance of this, and based on the evidence we've seen, it's imperative the games are moved away from Wuhan," said PFA CEO John Didulica.

"Without being alarmist, the welfare of the athletes is paramount and we don't see the need to take unnecessary risks.

"The key thing for us is that the FFA is continuing to brief the players and avoid any undue anxiety over this situation."

FFA has been in contact with consular officials and the Department of Foreign Affairs for several weeks, but contingency planning has intensified with the spread of the so-called coronavirus, one that is transmitted from animals to humans.

The players’ safety is FFA’s priority. Photo: AAP Image/Daniel Pockett
The players’ safety is FFA’s priority. Photo: AAP Image/Daniel Pockett

"We are carefully monitoring the developing coronavirus situation and are in regular dialogue with the Australian Government and Asian Football Confederation as well as ley medical experts," an FFA spokesperson said.

"The safety and wellbeing of players and staff is of paramount importance."

Now that a number of cases of human-to-human transmission have been confirmed, global measures to control the outbreak have included widespread screening of passengers travelling from Wuhan.

In the city itself, public officials including police and bank staff are wearing face masks and the Matildas were due to be given similar apparatuses.

The virus, similar to but not the same as the SARS epidemic of 2003, is thought to have originated in a so-called wet market where fish and livestock are bought and sold alive.

Initially those suffering all had a direct link to the market, but its rapid spread has caused alarm levels to rise equally quickly.

Meanwhile, the Matildas are set to play three friendlies with Women's World Cup bronze medallists Canada, with one to be a crucial part of preparations for the Tokyo Olympics if Australia qualify.

The FFA have announced the Matildas will play at BC Place in Vancouver on April 14, and the other two matches will be played in Australia before the end of 2021.

Australia coach Ante Milicic says the Vancouver match will be an important test for his side if they qualify for the Olympics.

"Canada is a real powerhouse in the women's game. After defeating Australia in our opening match of the 2016 Rio Olympics, they went on to claim their second straight bronze medal," he said.

"The quality of the Canadian team should not be underestimated, it will be a fiercely-fought series of matches and fans can look forward to two good match- ups here in Australia next year."

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