One of football’s great events was due to take place on Tuesday. Brazil were to have played Argentina in World Cup qualification.
But while international matches are taking place in many continents, the coronavirus pandemic have forced the postponement of March’s two rounds of CONEMBOL’s World Cup qualifying matches in South America.
This is largely because cases of the virus continue to rise significantly in Brazil, where the pandemic is at its worst, with a death toll of around 3,000 a day and an overall total of around 315,000.
Some European countries demand that those arriving from South America, and especially Brazil, serve quarantine periods — meaning that the many clubs in Europe were under no obligation to release their players for international duty. Colombia and Peru barred entry of planes from Brazil and other countries may follow suit.
With the Copa America just over ten weeks away, this is clearly a cause for concern. The competition is split between co-hosts Argentina and Colombia, with Brazil playing its group stage matches in the latter. Nearly all the South American sides have players based in Brazil. Teams from ten nations will be criss-crossing the continent. And if the pandemic is a headache for the Copa America, the same applies at the club level, where the group phase of the Copa Libertadores is three weeks away.
At this stage of the year teams are playing in competitions in each of Brazil’s 27 states. In 11 of those states, the local championship has been put on pause — in most cases, a short term measure. By far the most important of these tournaments is the Sao Paulo State Championship, which includes teams like Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Palmeiras, and Santos. And despite local authorities forcing a pause in play, the competition have been trying to circumvent that by holding matches in other states.
And so the question arises — should football shut down in Brazil?
The football authorities consistently argue that teams and players are safe. A recent study carried out by the University of Sao Paulo that looked at tests from eight tournaments — six men’s leagues, two women’s leagues — from the top level down the pyramid revealed a percentage of positive cases in players has reached 11.7%, comparable to that of health professionals in the country.
Professor Bruno Gaulano, who coordinated the study, told Globo Esporte that the risk of infection was higher when safety protocols were not observed outside of the pitch.
“The teams travel a lot to play their matches. The smaller teams travel by bus, eat in restaurants and are probably much more exposed to risk than the elite players. Our social inequality also permeates football,” said Gaulano.
“While our data shows that the players tend to develop only light symptoms or be asymptomatic, they can act as a vector of transmission to the community. In general they are individuals with a very active social life,” he added.
A noteworthy incident occurred earlier this month when Flamengo striker Gabriel Barbosa, one of the biggest stars in the domestic game, was arrested earlier this month in a clandestine casino in Sao Paulo. He later apologised after he was released.
“A large segment of people don’t obey the rules and don’t suffer any punishment as a result,” said Gaulano.
The question of whether or not football should be paused in Brazil is complex. There are no easy answers, no magical solutions. If the authorities running these state tournaments continue to argue that it is safe, then it must clearly do more to enforce its own protocols on staff and players, especially when they are off-duty.
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