In retrospect, an international break at this juncture was a bizarre risk to take.
The evidence keeps piling up. Shortly after Portugal’s 0–0 draw against France on Sunday, Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive for COVID-19, meaning he will miss the Nations League game against Sweden on Wednesday, as well as Juventus’s Serie A match against Crotone over the weekend and, almost certainly, next week’s Champions League meeting with Dynamo Kyiv and perhaps even the subsequent match against Barcelona a week later.
Irish government regulations meant Ireland was unable to use either Adam Idah or Aaron Connolly—two-thirds of the forward line it had used in its previous two games, in its Euro 2020 playoff against Slovakia—because by sitting in the wrong seats on the team plane, they had come within two meters of a communications officer who later tested positive. Ireland drew 0–0 and lost on penalties; it subsequently turned out the test had been a false positive. When a player then tested positive, he and another four deemed to be close contacts were forced to withdraw from the Nations League game against Wales on Sunday. New Ireland manager Stephen Kenny may feel he is due a change of fortune.
All over the world, the fragility of football’s capacity to go ahead despite the pandemic has been called into question by the international window, which ends on Wednesday with a further round of UEFA Nations League games, and the instances of that fragility are plentiful.
When three other goalkeepers tested positive, Ukraine was forced to bring 45-year-old assistant coach Oleksandr Shovkovskyi out of retirement to serve as backup for Heorhiy Bushchan. Thankfully, the Dynamo Kyiv keeper remained fit and kept a clean sheet as Ukraine beat Spain for the first time in its history.
The blights continue: England’s Under-19 game against Scotland last week was abandoned at halftime after word had trickled out after the game started that Scotland’s manager had tested positive. On the senior Scotland level, Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney, who had COVID-19 two months ago, and Celtic’s Ryan Christie will miss the weekend games against Manchester City and Rangers, respectively, after playing video games with Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong, who has tested positive.
The examples extend to South America: Two Peru players tested positive before Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil. One of them, Raúl Ruidíaz, faces a lengthy quarantine process that could keep him out of the Seattle Sounders’ remaining regular-season games.
When the Bundesliga became the first major European league to start up again in the spring, its chief executive, Christian Seifert, said that each week that German sides had to earn the right to play the following week. That has been true for every league. The bubble process in the Premier League, the level of care and scrutiny, is extraordinary, which is why the number of positive tests recorded after the restart last season was so low.
The offseason brought a number of positive tests, most notably in the Premier League for Paul Pogba, and that perhaps should have acted as a warning, particularly as the virus’s second wave breaks over Europe. Within their relative bubbles, players are relatively safe; outside, they are as vulnerable as anybody.
Questions inevitably arise. Given Ronaldo tested positive so soon after the France game, could he have passed on the virus during the match? (French rising star Eduardo Camavinga, who had swapped shirts with Ronaldo and claimed he wouldn’t wash his new memorabilia, may want to reconsider that stance.) And can it be ascertained where Ronaldo contracted the virus? Portugal says nobody else on the team has tested positive, but it’s unclear where in the incubation process things stand, and that opens up Wednesday’s opponent, Sweden, to potential susceptibility—not to mention all of the clubs to which all of those players will return later this week. The potential domino effect does not make for a very risk-averse set of circumstances.
Perhaps in the summer, when the virus seemed under control in Europe, a sense of overconfidence set in. It may be the case that the federations desperately need the revenue that international fixtures bring, but it’s hard to believe that shuttling players across the world—in some cases, to three countries in seven days—was the best way to achieve that, particularly given a calendar that is already dangerously compressed.
It’s not just that the act of moving itself, the mixing that necessarily entails, makes any outbreak harder to contain. It’s that, as the Irish case demonstrated, different countries have different protocols. In parts of England, households are again banned from mixing, people cannot visit dying relatives and whole blocks of students are effectively under house arrest. Similar restrictions are in force in various places across the continent. That makes the justification for logistical steps like Ukraine flying to France, Turkey flying to Germany, or Greece flying to Austria—all for friendlies—hard to fathom.
With cases rising across Europe, it would be no great surprise to see November’s international break curtailed, with the Nations League postponed or perhaps even abandoned. It’s already begun. On Wednesday, New Zealand withdrew from next month’s proposed friendly against England.
World Cup qualifiers, similarly, may end up being postponed even more. A safer format may be a block of fixtures, when bubbling would be easier to enforce, although with the Copa America and Euros set for June next year, it’s not clear exactly when that could be fit in. There is a more pressing need to play the four remaining Euro 2020 qualification playoffs (scheduled for next month), but given the current prognosis, there are already serious doubts being expressed as to whether the Euros next summer can go ahead as planned. Hosting the competition across 12 nations presents an array of difficulties—even before considering the current conflict engulfing one of the hosts, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
“For the moment, we are planning the Euro exactly as we want it to be,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told a German radio station this week. “We’re not thinking about it at the moment, but we could implement different things.
“We are considering how to do it with fans, without fans, or with 30, 50 or 70%. But theoretically, we could hold the Euro in 12 countries, in 11, in 10, in three countries or in one.”
Similar doubts may be raised about the Champions League and Europa League, which entail plenty of shuttling players across the continent. Having put in place very successful protocols to allow the domestic game to continue, the major European leagues may have to consider just how far those bubbles can stretch, because the chaos of the past 10 days cannot be repeated.
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