Bubbles are fragile and short-lived. And when they burst, they leave even the mighty soccer out in the open. That’s what the dispute after Sunday’s astonishing incidents in Sao Paulo is all about, when South America’s top soccer match, the classic between Brazil and Argentina, was interrupted by the action of the local health agency.
Four officials from Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) suspended one of the biggest derbies in world soccer to the helplessness of the two teams, the two federations, the South American Confederation (Conmebol) and FIFA itself. As front-row spectators, no less than Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.
The problem? Four Argentine players competing in the Premier League - Emiliano Martínez, Cristian Romero, Giovanni Lo Celso and Emiliano Buendía - did not include in their immigration forms, when entering Brazil, the fact that in the last 14 days they had been in the United Kingdom, one of the four countries considered by the Brazilian authorities to be risky due to the Delta variant.
According to Anvisa, it repeatedly warned the Argentine national team and all the parties involved in the match that these players should not leave the hotel, because they would be breaking the sanitary bubble. Argentina says this is not the case. What does Conmebol say?
“Anvisa and the Ministry of Health approved this sanitary corridor in which the matches are played. They know how the game is played and they know this was done to avoid quarantine,” Gonzalo Belloso, Conmebol’s deputy secretary general, told Around the Rings.
“The players have PCRs every 48 hours and the day before the match, they are all in the same hotel, separate rooms.... What happened here is a non-recognition of the right of all teams to use this sanitary corridor”.
Belloso categorically denied that a different protocol is in force today to the one agreed in August 2020, which allowed the return of professional soccer competitions in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic: “No, it is the same protocol, and it is still in force”.
Conmebol and FIFA have reason to envy the bubbles of the recent Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which were sustained for weeks without bursting.
The Sao Paulo scandal will not be resolved with speed; FIFA will take its time to unravel what happened there and make a decision. And, depending on what that decision is, the matter could even go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland. But Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, knows that the foundations of his organization are shaken after the events of recent weeks.
First there was the Premier League’s refusal to release players from its clubs to play in the World Cup qualification tournament. With the vetoes between the United Kingdom and South America -both sides see a pandemic danger in the other-, players would be absent from several matches. Martinez, Argentina’s first-choice goalkeeper, will spend 14 days in Croatia before returning to the Premier League.
And, after the Premier League’s refusal, to which the Spanish and Italian Leagues joined with a halfway stance, came the scandal of the match in Brazil. What happened in Sao Paulo reinforces the position of the European leagues and clubs: if they are the “owners” of the players, for whom they pay multimillion-dollar salaries, why should they put them at risk by loaning them to national teams during their competitions?
And to that they can now add: why send them to play matches that last five minutes?
This is a historical tension in soccer that is now stronger than ever. That is why Infantino is seeking to anticipate and put a broader issue on the table: that of the international match calendar.
“We need to rethink the calendar fundamentally, and to do that we need goodwill from everyone,” said the Swiss-Italian during the general assembly of the European Club Association (ECA).
Rethinking the calendar means avoiding overcrowding and overlapping matches. It is a long-standing desire of FIFA and a conviction of Infantino. The unusual (non) match in Brazil allows him to raise the issue again. The question is whether he will have the strength to push it through. The history of the last decades of soccer makes one think that no, that the money of the clubs, especially the now so-called “State clubs”, is already a parallel power difficult to control.
Messi and Neymar play for one of them, Paris Saint-Germain. With a detail: its President, Nasser El Khelaifi is on the opposite side to the clubs that pushed for the Super League at the time and thereby gave a clear nod to UEFA. A UEFA presided over by the Slovenian Aleksandr Ceferin, who does not exactly have the same vision of soccer as Infantino.
Anyway: were Messi and Neymar protagonists of the brief match that accelerated the decline of the national teams and further boosted the power of the clubs?
The truth is that today there are many more questions than answers. But there is one detail that should not be ignored: soccer, fortunately, is a game that is always full of surprises.