As many countries grapple with a second wave of coronavirus cases, hundreds of footballers have flown thousands of miles around the world to play international fixtures.
According to players union FIFPro, 251 players – more than half of which play in Spain, Italy, the US, Mexico and the UK – face long cross-continental trips back to South America, where the grueling World Cup qualifying process begins this week.
Many of those players will be flying directly from clubs based in areas that have experienced new lockdown measures – such as Liverpool and Everton in the north of England and Real and Atletico in Madrid, Spain – and will then be traveling between countries in South America.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has expressed concerns about the safety protocols in place to prevent players catching or spreading the virus on their travels.
The club has seen its own mini outbreak after Sadio Mane and Thiago Alcantara missed Sunday’s 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa due to positive tests, before Xherdan Shaqiri tested positive on Tuesday.
Shaqiri had already traveled to Switzerland to report for international duty before the Swiss Football Association confirmed he had tested positive, raising the question about the wisdom of holding an international break during a pandemic, though a second test on Thursday revealed it was a false positive.
The Ukrainian Football Association also confirmed on Tuesday that two of its players had tested positive ahead of a friendly match in the French capital of Paris, a city which has just closed bars, gyms and swimming pools for two weeks and raised the coronavirus alert to maximum following a spike in cases.
‘Spirit of solidarity’
FIFA’s ‘Return to Football – International Match Protocol’ is designed to keep players safe while on international duty.
Advice ranges from basic coronavirus guidelines, such as hygiene, social distancing and contact tracing, to regulations on pre-match testing.
However, FIFA stresses that it isn’t in a position to determine what each country should do and, as such, the advice from local health authorities to each confederation takes precedence over its own protocols.
UEFA, European football’s governing body, also has its own ‘Return to Play’ protocol, which includes certain medical and organizational obligations for venues hosting international fixtures.
Clubs and national team federations have long endured tense relationships around players’ schedules due to the congested nature of the international football calendar.
FIFA says it “strongly urges all member associations, clubs and players to work together in a spirit of solidarity to share information and find compromises for the benefit of all parties concerned under the regulatory framework that has now been temporarily adapted.”
At the end of last month, some clubs and federations in North America – which have postponed World Cup qualifiers until March 2021 – announced they would not be releasing players to compete in South American qualifiers, before eventually reversing their decision.
Under normal FIFA regulations, clubs are obliged to release players that are called up for international duty by their federations. Despite the ongoing pandemic, FIFA says those same obligations remain, though there are some exceptions.
For example, a club has the right to reject a players’ international call-up if they would be required to self-isolate for five days upon their return or where there are travel restrictions in either of the countries in question.
However, the UK government has ensured that top footballers would not have to quarantine on their return to the country by adding “international and domestic elite sportspersons” to a list of people exempt from self-isolation rules.
FIFPro’s general secretary, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, told Reuters that players should be able to refuse national team call-ups if they are concerned about traveling.
“The players need to be able to make free decisions,” he said. “It’s a region heavily infected by the pandemic and there are certain COVID-19 restrictions and travel warnings.”
Despite coronavirus cases in most South American countries gradually beginning to fall, in Argentina, where Lionel Messi and Co. welcome Ecuador on Thursday, has seen a sharp rise.
Brazil, meanwhile, the worst affected country in South America, hosts Bolivia on Friday.
Call ups rejected
It’s not just South American nations in the spotlight, several African countries, as well as Austria, have been impacted this international window after RB Salzburg announced it would not release players after three of its squad tested positive for Covid-19.
“All international call-ups for FC Red Bull Salzburg players in the next two weeks have been rejected,” the club said in a statement.
“This is a standard procedure that is required as part of the Covid-19 prevention concept agreed between the Austrian Bundesliga, Austrian football association and Austrian authorities.”
Mali, Cameroon, Zambia, Austria and Hungary had all called up players from Salzburg’s squad before the club announced the positive tests, which came days after a Champions League play-off with Maccabi Tel Aviv, itself decimated by a spate of coronavirus cases.
Dutch club Ajax has also refused to allow four of its African internationals – Ghana’s Mohammed Kudus, Moroccan pair Zakaria Labyad and Noussair Mazraoui, and Lassina Traore from Burkina Faso – to travel and join up with their national teams this week because they would have to quarantine on their return to the Netherlands, according to Reuters.
Despite FIFA’s extensive protocol document, the current international window – unlike any seen before it – looks unlikely to ease the already fraught relationships between clubs and countries.