Rio de Janeiro has become the epicenter of conflict over the return of football in times of coronavirus.
Brazil has suffered from the virus much more than anywhere else in South America, and Rio has suffered more than anywhere else apart from Sao Paulo. And yet it is the place where the ball is rolling.
The first national league due to kick off on the continent is in Paraguay on July 17 — Paraguay has suffered a total of 15 coronavirus deaths. In Brazil, the figure is closing in on 60,000, of which almost 10,000 have been in Rio.
Needless to say, the decision to restart football in Rio has caused conflict. Local giants Flamengo, the reigning national and continental champions, were the main drivers behind the resumption of the Rio de Janeiro State Championship. They were in action 10 days ago, after which a halt to competitive play was called. The Maracana complex, where the game was staged, includes a field hospital for those suffering from the coronavirus. On the day of the game two patients in the hospital died, adding force to the arguments Flamengo’s rivals Botafogo and Fluminense that the restart was coming way too soon.
Those two teams were ordered to play on Sunday, and took the field under protest. Botafogo’s coach, the vastly experienced and highly respected Paulo Autuori, wanted to resign earlier in the week to avoid taking part, but was talked into staying. Fluminense forced a change of stadium after making it clear that they would not play in the Maracana, alongside the hospital. Three players of Volta Redonda, the opposing team, tested positive for the virus on the day of the match.
And the conflict is not likely to go away. The matches so far have been, of course, behind closed doors. But the local authorities plan to allow stadiums to be full to one third of their capacity from July 10, and two thirds from the start of August. The rest of the continent, still at the planning stage, seems resigned to playing behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.
The problem is that it is not clear that the virus has passed its peak. Over the past few weeks a number of Brazilian cities have re-opened their economy. Some are already backtracking as the number of coronavirus cases increase. In a scenario where it would be advisable to err on the side of caution, Rio is taking the opposite road.
In part this is an attempt to force the kick off of the national Brazilian Championship, where early August has been penciled in as a start date.
CONMEBOL, the South American Confederation, might be happy with this news but there are also causes for concern.
With clubs all around the continent desperate for income, there is pressure for a quick resumption of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. Brazil is a huge part of the competition, supplying seven of the 32 teams. The Libertadores, then, cannot restart until Brazilian football is back. The position of CONMEBOL is that the action can only resume once all 10 of the continent’s footballing nations have opened their borders, but it is clearly more important to have Brazil up and running than, say, Venezuela, which has just two participants.
But Brazil returning under these conditions — well before coronavirus is brought under control — is also a problem. For all that the teams might be willing to travel to play their matches, governments might not be so keen. Paraguay have worked extremely hard to reduce the impact of the virus. Would its health authorities be happy to see Olimpia in action home and away against Santos, or for Palmeiras to visit Guarani?
In these cases the two Paraguayan sides are up against teams from the state of Sao Paulo, the worst affected city in South America.
Unless there is a dramatic improvement in coronavirus control in Brazil, the Paraguayan government would surely be justified in viewing these games as an unnecessary risk.
And there is another headache on the horizon. The current plan is to kick off the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in early September. South America plays double headers, with all the teams in action both home and away over the course of a few days. This means that there is plenty of travelling for the European based stars. There is not only the trip over the Atlantic, but also a potentially lengthy journey inside South America.
This second part is particularly worrying. Would a European club feel happy releasing a star player for matches against Brazil, in Brazil or travelling through Brazil? Again, unless there is a dramatic improvement the answer must surely be an emphatic “No.”
Brazil, and Rio football, is choosing to be an outrider in the way it deals with controlling the coronavirus. But the game takes place in a global context. Brazil can only get so far on its own.