Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Is International Football Safe During COVID?

Posted on 19 October 2020 by Bailey Keogh

Europe has seen an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, with over 700,000 people being infected in less than two weeks. Given those numbers, it was almost inevitable that the international break would lead to positive cases. And so, the news that Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive after playing in a Nations League fixture against France on Sunday 11 October was met not with shock, but with resignation.

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Against this backdrop, with a second wave sweeping across Europe, it is bizarre that FIFA and UEFA have sanctioned international teams not just competing against each other but travelling across the continent to do so.

“What are the turnaround times for testing players? What is the protection and insurance in case players get infected?” the global players’ union FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann queried. “If they have long-term health problems, who would be responsible for making sure players are taken care of? There are all questions we are figuring out – we understand they are not easy, but they are elements which must be clarified.”

If Ronaldo had tested positive for the virus during an international break six months ago, UEFA would have had to act immediately. There has been no vaccine introduced since the postponement of the 2019/2020 season. So, why is there no cancellation of international football this time around?

Financial ramifications is the only logical reason the international football governing bodies could possibly give for staging worldwide football matches during these uncertain times. UEFA suffered terribly from not hosting the European Championships this summer, missed out on a reported £400m, hence the delay in originally postponing the tournament following the outbreak of the crisis.

However, shoring up governing bodies’ balance sheets could potentially cause chaos within club football. Friendlies and Nations League matches which have led to positive tests will now have a domino effect on the players who came into contact with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, which even if we restrict ourselves to the France and Portugal squads covers most of the major leagues in Europe.

The most absurd case in all of this was the Czech Republic v Scotland drama in the last international break. Czech Republic had requested to postpone the match due to an overwhelming number of COVID cases, but UEFA rejected this request and a reserve team was forced to play. The Czechs even had to recall a goalkeeper out of retirement, and did remarkably well to only lose 2-1.

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Whilst UEFA could argue that the European Championship Qualifiers had to be played this month so the finals don’t get delayed even further, the economic reasoning for continuing the Nations League should not stand as valid. If players are constantly testing positive after going away with their national teams, this could force the delay of fixtures in club football, which ultimately could prevent the planned start of Euro 2021. It is very short term thinking from UEFA, who seem to have failed to look at the bigger picture.

With the winter months beckoning in Europe, if UEFA continues to allow nations to play three games in multiple countries in a fortnight during November, COVID-19 cases will continue to soar across the footballing world, and the feeling of uncertainty will continue well into the summer. UEFA must act accordingly.