Was Brazil vs Argentina a Covid Publicity Stunt?

by | Sep 20, 2021

In football as in life. I hadn’t expected to continue my series of Covid in Football articles when last season ended with case numbers dwindling to almost nothing in the English Premier League (EPL) and English Football leagues (EFL). I should have.

On 9th April, the UK government placed Pakistan and Bangladesh on its “red list” of places to and from which travel was banned. Neighbouring India only joined them on 23rd April. The BBC’s ‘Reality Check team’ reported on 19th May that statistics used by then Health Secretary Matt Hancock (whoever he was) to justify the decision were “not supported by publicly available NHS figures.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due in India for a trade visit from 26th April. This was cancelled on 19th April, after a spike in cases of Covid’s “INDIAN variant” which re-energised the UK pandemic. But only direct chronological and statistical evidence links Johnson’s desire to go trade-tripping with the delay in red-listing India and the subsequent, on-going rise in Covid case numbers, driven primarily by what is now called the “Delta” variant.

In football as in life. So, I began my season’s work at the Non-League Paper (NLP, available in all good newsagents every Sunday, £1.50) in early August pondering aloud how long THIS season would last before the now-traditional Covid-related shutdown. And I began preparing a bemoan about Covid in UK club football. Then…Brazil.

Everything wrong about football’s attitude to Covid has been showcased by the on-going saga of the 5th September South American World Cup 2022 qualifier between Brazil and Argentina at the Corinthians Arena in Brazil’s most populous city, Sao Paulo. The game was halted after six minutes when officials from Brazil’s sinister-sounding “National Health Surveillance Agency” (ANVISA) “stormed” or “wandered” onto the pitch (depending on how ‘tabloid’ your news source is) to remove Argentine players they believed had broken Brazil’s Covid quarantine laws.

Premier Sports, the game’s UK match broadcaster, tweeted TV pictures of the pitch incursion. This involved much Lionel Messi-focussed milling about, occasional Argentine player arm-grabbing by various incursion-ers, and finally Argentines trudging down the players’ tunnel. But there was a revealing commentary by a thoroughly-prepared John Roder, which offered clear proof that the incursion was a farce of Brian Rix proportions (ask your grandparents).

Roder said: “A couple of hours before the game, it became common knowledge that the Brazilian public health authorities were trying to deport four of the Argentine squad,” namely Aston Villa’s two Emilianos, Martinez and Emiliano Buendia, and Tottenham’s Giovani lo Celso and Christian Romero. The EPL quartet had, of course, travelled from the UK. Thus ANVISA claimed “they weren’t complying with Brazilian health regulations regarding the Covid pandemic” and so “should be deported.”

Brazil, Roder added, were “without nine players, who were prevented from travelling by their clubs.” And he clarified that “travel for elites sportspeople within South America is permitted. Travel for players from outside South America is not permitted. The rules state that there should be 14 days’ quarantine” for UK-based players.

The next day, Brazil’s Federal Police said that the quartet had been deported, as if they were planning to do a bit of early Christmas shopping in Sao Paulo after the match anyway, with Argentina’s next qualifier four days later. And, with that stable door shut, they had opened an inquiry into the quartet’s actions.

Then, the next, next day, Fifa announced “that disciplinary proceedings have been opened involving both member associations…following the analysis of the official match reports relating to (the game).” The teams were “asked to provide further information on the facts that led to the suspension of the match, which will be gathered and then thoroughly reviewed by Fifa’s Disciplinary Committee.”

Many of these “facts” were, ahem, clear and obvious. Earlier on matchday, ANVISA received a “report that four Argentine players had entered Brazil in defiance of the country’s sanitary regulations, allegedly giving false information” to them. It was “confirmed, following revision of the (quartet’s) passports, that the athletes broke the rules for entry…which decree that foreign travellers who have been in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Northern Ireland and India in the last 14 days are banned from entering Brazil.

“The players in question declared that they had not been in any of those four restricted countries in the last 14 days,” ANVISA added, exposing their misunderstanding of Northern Ireland’s geopolitical status. “(We) consider the situation a severe health risk and have therefore instructed local health authorities to impose immediate quarantine measures on the players, who are banned from engaging in any activity and will be unable to remain in Brazilian territory.” Worked well, eh?

And the key “facts” were “common knowledge” days earlier. On 29th August, BBC ‘Match of the Day 2’ (MOTD2) coverage of Spurs/Watford included camera shots of Spurs subs lo Celso and Romero, with match commentary references to their participation in the qualifiers. So, almost exactly a week before ANVISA acted, even I knew the duo were Brazil-bound. Now, MOTD2 probably isn’t live-streamed into ANVISA offices. But if duo’s selection was on BBC commentary crib sheets, how did ANVISA not know? Especially as Argentina’s formal squad announcement was six days earlier still.

AND player unavailability for these qualifiers was making football headlines throughout that week, although sadly not the headline “Manchester City refuse to release Jesus” after City refused to release striker Gabriel Jesus and goalkeeper Ederson for Brazil’s squad. Liverpool did likewise (leaving Brazil two keepers down). And on 24th August, the EPL “reluctantly but unanimously” decided that no EPL players would be released for internationals in red-list countries.

The EPL blamed Fifa’s decision “not to extend its temporary release exemption for players required to quarantine on their return from international duty,” a measure used for last season’s internationals, when the pandemic was growing fast. Quarantine, the EPL said, would “not only” mean “players welfare and fitness” being “severely impacted,” but would also mean them missing, among other games, “the third round of the EFL Cup.” Better to destroy the integrity of Brazil/Argentina than Manchester City/Wycombe, eh?

The EPL statement was drafted to prioritise the welfare and fitness angle. But missing EPL games was their main gripe, as exposed by their reaction to South America’s international break being two days longer than Europe’s. The extension placed “additional obligations” on South American players “to the detriment of their availability to represent their clubs,” despite Europe scheduling three games in a nine-day break while South America scheduled three in an 11-day break.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino said on 25th August, that releasing players was “a matter of great urgency and importance.” And protagonists should do “what is right and fair…to protect the sporting integrity of competitions around the world.” Especially Fifa ones. And especially, especially those awarded to Qatar. If you see an unattended sense of irony anywhere, you now know who to call.

He appealed in a letter to Johnson to let players play in “qualifying matches for the Fifa World Cup, which is one of the ultimate honours for a professional footballer.” And he suggested to Johnson that the UK government should repeat their quarantine rule-relaxing ahead of “the final stages of Euro 2020.” It read like an appeal to Johnson’s better nature, which was doomed to failure, as Johnson doesn’t have one, unless it coincides with what’s ‘better’ for Johnson.

The Confederation of African Football ‘s (CAF’s) headline-grabber was their hint of ‘one law for the rich.’ International players were due back “from several African countries.” So CAF “appealed as a matter of urgency” for the “exemptions” which let “delegations and officials” attend the Euros to apply to Africa “under the principles of solidarity and equal treatment.”

Then, a twist. Five days after the EPL’s “reluctant” united front, Villa were less “reluctant” to disunite that front. On 29th August, Villa confirmed that Martinez and Buendia had already joined Argentina’s squad, “with the permission of the clubs, in accordance with Fifa’s international match call-up rules.”

This was facilitated by the players “agreeing” to be “available for Argentina’s vital (qualifiers) against Venezuela and Brazil” but miss the Bolivia game, which was presumably NOT vital, whatever Argentina’s first two results (Bolivian thoughts on this, unknown). Thus, to comply with UK quarantine regulations, they would “only” have to miss the EPL game at Chelsea, and would be “available for the visit of Everton to Villa Park on 18th September.” Not that Villa were writing off the Chelsea game. Not in the greatest league in the world, where anybody can beat anybody on their day.

Yet, all these stories escaped ANVISA’s attention. The many listing the 60 EPL players impacted by their league’s actions. And the many more highlighting individual impacts. Such as, to pick an impact purely at random, Sky Sports’ website report that Martinez would be “prevented from playing his nation’s qualifiers.” It was, almost literally, “in all the papers.” But others outside football merit considerable scrutiny. How, for instance, did the Tottenham Two ’escape’ the airport, into which they flew TWO days before the game? They couldn’t prove they had the necessary exemption because they didn’t have it. Which was, almost literally, “in all the papers.”

Meanwhile, inside football, Fifa’s disciplinary process should be part-internal probe…and as painful as that sounds. If Infantino wrote to Johnson ELEVEN days before the match on players being “prevented from playing,” Fifa knew the considerable responsibility they had FOR such prevention, even if ultimate responsibility for a non-football law lay elsewhere (it is the “FIFA” World Cup, after all, as Infantino et al constantly emphasise, even in letters to Johnsons).

And the EPL’s “reluctant” unity proved unenforceable. The Tottenham Two didn’t have Tottenham’s permission to travel (Davinson Sanchez was also on Spurs’ naughty step after playing for Colombia) but travelled anyway. “For the love of the shirt…as much as (they) did not want to come,” Martinez…er…”explained?

Nevertheless, the largest column of cock-ups seems to be ANVISA’s. They missed more chances to facilitate law enforcement than Timo Werner on an off-day. And for a “surveillance” agency, they didn’t do much…well…surveillance. Indeed, the whole scenario screams “publicity stunt,” which could also be rhyming slang for some protagonists.

If ANVISA had enforced the law asap, there’d have been no match…or broadcast rights money. By waiting until after kick-off, ANVISA were seen to be doing something (all-too-often the most important thing), by millions worldwide too. Something arguably more dramatic than a ‘Brazil XI’ match with no crowds might have been, and for which broadcast rights money could defensibly be charged.

Football is not alone in the Covid chaos and controversy columns. But, as the global game with global responsibilities, it should treat all global pandemic issues seriously and competently. Sadly, with the next break three weeks away, there is as little sign as ever that football will.