Football’s Covid Crisis: Capitalism, Carabao Cup & Colombia

by | Apr 16, 2021

The preponderance of the Indian tiranga (Tricolour) and the USA’s Stars and Stripes on the “News Now – Coronavirus in Sport” page shows that sport’s COVID epicentre is far from home (even the European Sambo championships have been twice-delayed). The forthcoming few weeks will determine whether that epicentre stays that distant.

The English Football League (EFL) announced its second Covid-free week, after “4,276 players and club staff from all… clubs were tested” from April 5-11. But the subsequent news has not been good. Sheffield Wednesday first-team coach Paul Williams contracted COVID two days after manager Darren Moore. And Moore, like Shrewsbury Town boss Steve Cotterill, has contracted pneumonia linked to his COVID bout. Cotterill may not return to work until next season. While Moore has said he was in “extreme discomfort” with “blood clots on his lungs.” Best wishes to both for full recoveries.

There were only two positive tests among the 2,940 undertaken on EPL players and staff from 5-11 April, largely in line with recent results (one last week and the week before, two in each of the previous seven weeks). And it suggests that the impact of the recent international break may have been limited (although Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang contracted malaria on international duty with Gabon), with the number of EPL tests the highest since early-February.

Ruben Neves is the second Wolverhampton Wanderer to test positive post-internationals. However, other recent COVID headlines at Wolves had a different focus. On Monday, “Wolves Help” tweeted about “a rise in professional autograph hunters ignoring COVID guidance and congregating around players and their vehicles.” And the local Express and Star newspaper’s Jamie Brassington reported “incidents…outside Molineux Stadium after matches and Compton training ground” with “people…driving long distances to obtain autographs and sell them.” Covidiocy capitalism. FFS.

In mainland Europe, COVID could cause what the Associated Press news agency called the “shock relegation” of “well-funded” German club Hertha Berlin. Coach Pal Dardai, assistant coach Admir Hamzagic and striker Dodi Lukebakio tested positive this week. And assistant coach Andreas Neuendorf is isolating, as a close contact. The other players and coaches have been ordered into “closed accommodation” for 14 days. Hertha are one place and a goal difference of ten above a relegation play-off place and three points above automatic relegation.

News that Real Madrid’s recently injury-prone captain Sergio Ramos tested positive this week meant that he missed both legs of Real’s Uefa Champions League (UCL) quarter-final win over Liverpool. These absences were, in and of themselves, probably for the best given his ‘behaviour’ in Real’s UCL final triumph against Liverpool in 2018,,,and general sh*thousery over many years. But surely only the most cynical football fan would have wished COVID on him. No. Come on.

The EFL have, finally, confirmed Carabao Cup Final ticket plans. The Events Research Programme (ERP) “scientific pilot event” is adults only. And ERP events are able-bodied only too, which the EFL announcement somehow overlooked. Tottenham disabled fans’ group SpursAbility forcefully did not. They called the exclusion of the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) “direct discrimination toward many disabled supporters” and made the clinically extremely pertinent point that most CEV people have had both vaccine doses “and are at considerably lower risk than those yet to be vaccinated.”

Finalists Manchester City and Tottenham will each have 2,000 multi-tested fans among the 8,000 Wembley Stadium crowd. The five “mandatory requirements” for fans include taking a “lateral flow COVID test 24 hours” before the match “at a rapid lateral flow test site” (contrary to some media reports, home tests “will not be accepted”) and providing matchday “proof of a negative test result” via text or e-mail. “Additional asks” include “a PCR COVID-19 home test” before and five days after the match.

And travel arrangements have been made for 1,750 City fans “in and around Greater Manchester” and 250 Blues “based in London and the Home Counties,” thus accommodating the veterans of City’s 1998 third-tier defeat at Fulham. Nothing on out-of-area Spurs fans. But the “travel criteria” was “produced in consultation” with…just about everybody, almost one organisation per fan, by the looks. Good luck…and health…to all involved.

In Covidiocy news, it was disappointing to see James Maddison among Leicester City’s COVID protocol breachers. Maddison was the highest-profile adherer to the short-lived, panic-induced EPL ban on tactile goal celebrations, performing an amusing cameo of mimed handshakes and high-fives after scoring against Southampton on 16th January. Back then, he struck many part of the EPL intelligentsia when he became the go-to figure for post-match comment. His protocol breaching suggests that the bar for a place among the EPL’s intellectual elite is limbo-dancer low.

Maddison, midfield colleague Hamza Choudury and striker Ayoze Perez were dropped from Leicester’s squad for the key EPL game, and what could be a key loss in their Champions League qualification bid, at West Ham on Sunday. Indeed, their collective absence could arguably have cost Leicester at least a point. The trio were reported to have attended a protocol-breaching party (not the official theme, you understand) at Perez’s house the previous weekend. Long-term injury absentees Harvey Barnes and club captain Wes Morgan were also reportedly party-goers.

At the same time as the team looked like heading for heavy defeat at the London Stadium, the club issued a statement expressing its “extreme disappointment” at the breaches, having “made its expectations around adherence” to the protocols “abundantly clear to all its personnel.” And it further expected “our people to behave in a way that reflects the national effort” to control the viral spread. The matter was, as per, to be “concluded internally.”

And after Leicester nearly became the second consecutive team to draw after being three-down at West Ham, Foxes boss Brendan Rodgers, who caught COVID last spring, externalised those internal conclusions. The trio were “good boys” but had fallen “well below the values we have as a club.” He dropped them as a fine would be “a drop in the ocean.” It was “a very important game for us,” he added. “But some things are bigger than football.”

Admirable-sounding. But lenient alongside the bans for Scottish-based breachers. Yet protocol-breachers in England AND Scotland can play in big cup games this weekend; Rangers’ Nathan Patterson because Scottish football’s disciplinary system is taking ages to hear the appeals of five Rangers’ players who got six-match bans after two-MONTH-old breaches. Maddison et al because each received a one-match ban and…er…that’s it. Different methods but similar leniency. And if Patterson’s appeal succeeds, on the grounds that “he’s good, you can’t ban him,” the COVID game’s gone.

Less laxity in Italy, with even less being sought. Last November, Serie A’s Lazio were investigated for violations of COVID testing protocols. In February, club president Claudio Lotito and two club doctors, Ivo Pulcini and Fabio Rodia, were referred to court, as Lazio were charged with “violations of federal regulations and a lack of observance of health protocols.” And last month, Lazio were fined €150,000, Lotito banned for seven months and the doctors a year each for “failing to communicate positive cases…to the local Health Authority” before “games against Club Brugge, Zenit and Torino.”

Misnamed club top-scorer Ciro Immobile and wing-back Djavan Anderson should have missed Lazio’s impossibly dramatic 4-3 win at Torino on 1st November (Immobile netting a late double, including a 95th-minute penalty to make it 3-3). Andersen should also have missed their 1-1 draw with Juventus a week later. And Thomas Strakosha and Liverpool-fan disturbing flashback Lucas Leiva tested positive yet trained throughout and played against Torino.

Charges in connection with the Zenit match in the UCL were dropped because “communication of the positive tests was received at the end of training” (which probably seemed like the door-shutting of a recently-evacuated stable to team-mates). And the punishments were less than the prosecution sought. So, they appealed the decision, and the hearing is set for 30th April.

In football media covidiocy news, a Scottish Sun website headline on Thursday read: “Three Scots deaths as Lennon at centre of police probe over Covid breach claim.” Ex-Celtic boss Neil Lennon IS being so ‘probed,’ after being filmed drunk in Cumbria on Tuesday in a potential “cross-border COVID breach.” But the deaths were not linked. And as a newspaper headline-writer, I know that such headlines would be amended pre-publication (at the very least by a comma after “deaths”), unless the link was intentional. And, intentional or not, the link will have been made by many readers. As the Sun “newspaper” well knows.

And finally… Two weeks ago, the story of Colombian top-flighters Rionegro Aguilas would have been filed away as an April Fool joke. But last Sunday, lowly Aguilas had to play a Categoria Primera A game against lower mid-table Boyaca Chico despite SIXTEEN positive COVID tests leaving them with seven fit players, including two goalkeepers. They only lost three-nil too, successfully parking their seven-elevenths of the bus for 57 minutes (Chico’s half-time team-talk must have been ‘interesting’).

Aguilas had asked the league (Dimayor) to postpone the fixture. But they refused, leaving the club to snarkily tweet their matchday squad as “the 18…sorry…7 called up for the most unequal game in history.” Dimayor president Fernando Jaramillo, hid behind cited Law 3 of the game, which states in part that “a match may not start or continue if either team has fewer than seven players.” This did not occur until Giovanny Martinez’s 79th-minute injury. And it did not occur to any of the Aguilas seven to get “injured” early enough to render a credibly-declared result impossible. To their credit, I guess.

Jaramillo claimed the postponement was necessary as “this rule comes from the International Football Association Board. If there are seven players available, you have to show up with those seven players.” And, unsurprisingly, Aguilas owner Fernando Salazar was not best pleased, especially when Jaramillo added that the one remaining round of fixtures at this stage of Colombia’s complex league competition would take place as scheduled this Sunday. Claiming to have sent “several (postponement) requests” to the Dimayor, he said: “It hurts me that we are subject to derision and immersed in this situation which could have been avoided.”

Post-match, Aguilas defiantly tweeted: “We lost the game but we will win the battle against Covid-19. We are very proud of you, guys.” Yet Chico could be the ultimate losers. In Colombia’s complex league competition, relegation is determined by the last three seasons’ results. And while Chico are 13th in 2021’s 19-team Primera A table, their inability to make their four-man advantage count properly last Sunday leaves them bottom of the relegation table…on goal difference. Ten-nil would have taken them off the bottom. Against seven men, even for 79 minutes, it should have been possible.

Football’s global Covid landscape is fast-moving. Which requires caution across football’s domestic Covid landscape. Here’s to that caution being applied wisely.